BY JAMES FARRELL
At around 3 p.m. on Monday, the senior citizens at the Korean American Senior Center of Corona relaxed with games of ping pong and Chinese chess. At the same time, Jung Hwa Ahn, Hye Rang Jean and Tae Bong Lee were finishing up a day of work in the center’s kitchen, cleaning and preparing a last batch of meals for the returning drivers of the center’s Meals on Wheels program. Lunch was over, and the three cooks had been working since 6:30 a.m., cooking for the approximately 330 seniors who come by the center every day.
It’s a lot of work for three cooks, who are also accompanied by one other staff member in the kitchen and two volunteers who help distribute the meals. But as overwhelming as the workload can be, Jung, Hye and Tae consider it a blessing to still be able to tackle it. At 76, 73 and 73, respectively, Jung, Hye and Tae could be guests at the center themselves. Instead, they have worked in the kitchen for almost 20 years, and plan to continue until they physically can’t anymore.
“It benefits our lives,” Tae, who handles all the cooking for the Meals on Wheels Program, said through an interpreter. “We become more active. We can have a more healthful life than other seniors.”
Additionally, the cooks agree that continuing to work at the center allows them to continue contributing to their society.
“We are not doing this for the money,” said Hye through an interpreter. “We enjoy the work.”
Jung, the head cook, arrived in America in 1976. She began working part time at the center in ’98, and in two months she became second in charge, becoming the main cook last year in February. She said she learned cooking from her mother, and initially she was reluctant to learn, because she wanted to pursue an education and push against the stereotype that she should become a housemaid. But as she began to cook for her own family, she realized she loved cooking for others, and channeled that into her work at the center.
Hye and Tae came to America in ’81 and ’87, respectively. Before starting at the center, Tae was a Korean restaurant chef. Inspired by the positive feelings that came when other people enjoyed his food, he continued his work at the center. And Hye joined the center after a few years of not working, deciding that she would rather be active than stay at home.
The Korean American Senior Center is an extension of Korean Community Services, an organization that provides services targeting Korean individuals in New York and northern New Jersey. In addition to senior services, it provides services in fields such as mental health, employment, immigration and education. Korean Community Services serves over 1,100 individuals a day across multiple sites in Queens, Manhattan, Brooklyn and northern New Jersey.
Jung, explained through an interpreter that the three cooks plan out the menu with a nutritionist and begin cooking food every weekday at 6:30 a.m. While there are four staff members in the kitchen, the demand of feeding 330 seniors every day is very high, she said, and highlights a need for a bigger staff despite a limited budget, and importantly, for more volunteers.
“We have to make Korean food because it’s mostly Korean seniors,” Jung said in translation, adding that Korean food is very complicated and requires a lot of work and preparation. “We have to buy all the vegetables, raw fish, meat and everything, and we need to cook, starting from scratch. The workload compared to number of staff makes it really, really hard for us to provide lunch to everyone.”
Additionally, the three cooks expressed frustration that their decision to continue working has made it more difficult for them in some ways, because they and their families cannot receive Social Security and other benefits that are usually provided to senior citizens if they are part of the workforce, they said. This is frustrating, they said, because they feel it is important for seniors to remain active members of society and the workforce. But the current system discourages that.
Despite some of these frustrations, the three cooks say they love what they do.
“We are appreciative of everything that we have,” said Jung.
And the results are appreciated as well. Joong Koo Kim, 66, was at the center on Monday. “I really enjoy the food. It’s the best food I can get,” he said through an interpreter. “I can only say that they are really great, what they’re doing, making food for the seniors.”
Reach James Farrell at (718) 357-7400×127, email@example.com or @farrellj329