Seniors Digest
Seattle-King County Edition (Preview)
  September 1, 2010 

Lifelong Recreation's Food and Fitness Programs

Meeting the cultural, social, fitness and nutritional needs of refugee and immigrant communities

Vietnamese Senior Association gentlement play Chinese chess

Mr. Chan and Mr. Vo of the Vietnamese Senior Association enjoy a game of Chinese chess while Mr. Tran observes the game.

Participants in the Somali Fun and Fitness program

Sahra Farah, Executive Director of the Somali Community Services of Seattle (center), with program participants Miriam Said (left) and Habiba Ismail.

Working out with weights

A participant at the East African Food and Fitness program gets a head start on his upper body workout.

Ethiopian-Eritrean program participants

Enjoying a delicious lunch and cultural program at the Yesler Ethiopian-Eritrean Food and Fitness Program.

What is Food and Fitness? It's a great combination of healthy activities that serves a growing demographic in Seattle! It also is a good example of how we all need to look at how recreation is being redefined. 

Four years ago, Seattle Parks and Recreation's Lifelong Recreation staff and Aging and Disabilities Services (ADS) established a partnership to provide congregate meals to diverse elder communities, while including creative ways to encourage people to be more physically active. The arrangement for Food and Fitness was that Parks would provide space at community centers where there were commercial kitchens and administrative and recreation staff support, while ADS would provide funding and nutritional support for a lunch program. The contracted group would have spokespeople to meet with us quarterly, provide evaluative information, and help us with program design. A key aspect of the contract was that each participating group would agree to be physically active for a minimum of one hour. 

For people around the world, food and fitness are both essential components of staying vital, healthy, and socially connected.  Parks' Lifelong Recreation Program currently supports five community Food and Fitness groups: Vietnamese, Korean, Somali, Ethiopian, and Samoan. Groups practice their traditional ways of eating while embracing a combined approach of activity, featuring Western recreation programming as well as that with which the groups are familiar. We have found as a starting point that most cultures dance and walk, and physical activity can start with these activities as a base.

The two elder groups we present here are served in the Central East sector: the Vietnamese Senior Association (VSA) and the Korean Senior Club (KSC). Garfield Community Center hosts the VSA Food and Fitness program, and the Miller Community Center hosts the KSC. Both programs operate two days a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. – 1 p.m.  Recently, a budget reduction plan called for the programs not to take place on Fridays when staff were on unpaid furloughs, but thanks to the advocacy of the Lifelong Recreation Advisory Council members, those Fridays were restored.

Depending on culture, ethnicity and upbringing, traditional foods can be an important part of family social dynamics. In addition, fitness for these groups may be very different from Western norms. These programs serve elders from various backgrounds; many are first generation refugees/immigrants. Many are low-income and speak limited English or none at all. Most Food and Fitness programs provide two meals per week, plus an informal food bank on Fridays that provides the elders with other foodstuffs for the days when they are not at the program. More than 750 VSA members and 450 KSC members attend the programs every month. 

Seniors from as far north as Everett and as far south as Olympia gather for Food and Fitness and participate in activities which may include conversations in their language, computer work, karaoke, exercise, educational speakers, ESL classes, health referrals, case management (from Asian Counseling and Referral Services) and a lunch similar to what would be served in their native country.

On Tuesdays, the Vietnamese cook a traditional homemade Vietnamese lunch using the commercial kitchen at Garfield Community Center, and both the KSC and VSA cater lunches from local restaurants for the other gatherings. This program gives the elders an opportunity to socialize with old and new friends who speak their native language and enjoy the same cultural activities. It also helps to provide opportunities to assimilate into American culture. It is our hope that through programs such as these, it will become easier for them to navigate their way through the day-to-day challenges of living in our city and country.

In addition to the nutritional program, VSA and KSC elders enjoy dancing and performing as a group. Line dancing is one of the most popular activities, as everyone knows the Electric Slide and the Cupid Shuttle! The VSA have developed several of their own unique exercise programs and have been asked to demonstrate their "Stick Exercise" program for many groups and at events. Participants use a stick to maintain body alignment and posture while stretching to increase flexibility and range of motion. This class is currently being offered as a drop-in activity, as we encourage community participation. Other physical activities include ping pong, badminton, and ballroom dancing.

To help support their Food and Fitness program, the VSA will be holding a fundraiser that will feature lots of food and fun, in partnership with Parks and ACRS. The date and time for the Vietnamese Senior Association Fundraiser will be announced soon.

What are the food and fitness traditions in your life? How do you honor your culture and connection to your original place of ancestry? The Lifelong Recreation brochure has examples of programs and activities celebrating diversity, and we are always looking to hear from the community about new ideas.

In addition to the Food & Fitness programs described above, Somali Community Services of Seattle coordinates a senior gathering weekly at Rainier Community Center, which includes a healthy halal lunch, speakers on relevant topics, and weekly exercise activities.  At the Yesler Community Center, a new partnership was recently formed for Ethiopian and Eritrean elders to gather for traditional food and activities. Both the Somali/Oromo and Ethiopian/Eritrean programs are supported by the Refugee Women's Alliance.  

For more information about the Food and Fitness program and/or to arrange a lunch tour, please contact Angela at (206) 233-7255 or e-mail

Angela Smith has been with Seattle Parks and Recreation for more than 8 years and is currently the Recreation Specialist for Central East programming for people age 50+.  She has a Bachelor of Science in Recreation, and a minor in Therapeutic Recreation. In her spare time, she referees basketball games, and she is looking forward to the birth of her first child in November.

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