East African Elder Community Meal Program

ST. PETER — About two years ago, focus groups with St. Peter’s East African community raised concerns about social isolation among older residents.

The feedback spurred area organizations to brainstorm ways to connect them to community resources. Their work resulted in a grant-funded community meal program set to launch Thursday at the St. Peter Senior Center.

Abdi Matan of St. Peter’s Horn of Africa Aid and Rehabilitation Action Network, or HAARAN, said the program will provide both socialization and education for older adults in the East African community.

“They need somewhere to come out of their homes and come together,” he said.

HAARAN estimated the St. Peter and Mankato areas had 200 East African families in 2017, with those families supporting 65 relatives age 50 or older.

Along with social isolation, some of these older adults are experiencing depression and post-tramautic stress stemming from their time in refugee camps, Matan said.

Studies show social isolation is associated with increased mortality, and the AARP estimates more than 8 million adults 50 and older experience it. Lutheran Social Service operates a meal program for older adults at Parkview Manor, but it’s not halal, which are foods allowed under Islamic dietary laws.

The new program at the senior center, which Lutheran Social Service is involved in, will be halal. HAARAN members met with the St. Peter Co-op to work on recipes.

Anyone is welcome to attend, with residents older than 50 asked to leave a donation and younger residents asked to pay $9. Leah Mahoney, coordinator for the Brown, Nicollet, Le Sueur and Waseca counties’ Statewide Health Improvement Partnership program, said a grant from the state Department of Health ensures the program will run on the second and fourth Thursdays each month for the next 2 1/2 years — unless the Thursday falls on a holiday. The meal will run from 11 a.m. to noon, followed by an hour of health education or cultural programming.

Mahoney said some weeks will have presentations on topics such as obesity and heart disease, while others could feature poetry, storytelling or dancing.

“It’s supposed to be an opportunity to share cultures as well,” she said.

Organizers distributed flyers at mosques in St. Peter and Mankato along with door-to-door outreach. Mahoney said a meal program pilot bringing East African elders and the wider community together is a novel concept, resulting in interest from as far as Faribault.

If the meals are successful in reducing social isolation, she said there’s potential for other communities to add similar programs.

“We want to make a model that’s replicable, so hopefully what we’re learning here now can be used in other communities as well,” she said.

Registration for the first meal Thursday is open through Monday. For more information, visit www.saintpetermn.gov/senior-center.

Follow Brian Arola @BrianArola

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