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Senior Citizen Lunch Boxes

by Fa-Tai Shieh

Personal Perspectives

Summer Volume: 2016 Issue: 23(2)

My parents, both over age sixty, purchase senior citizen lunch boxes at the Chinese senior center near their home in the suburbs of Washington D.C. About twice a week, either my Mom or my Dad or both, go to that center. After participating in one of the activities such as mah jong, line dancing, or calligraphy, they often buy one or two lunch boxes cooked by a participating local Chinese restaurant owner. These lunch boxes cost two dollars each. Yes, just two dollars per box! That is less than a value meal at McDonald’s, a sandwich at Subway, or a burrito at Chipotle.

Each lunch box is in a plastic container with its black bottom and clear plastic lid. The boxes are rectangular, about six inches wide, eight inches long, and one and a half inches deep. That translates to a holding capacity of about twenty-eight ounces or just less than four cups. These standard plastic containers are used by Chinese and other takeout restaurants to package foods for delivery.

For two bucks, the food in them provides a complete Chinese meal in one box. Seniors can see in and know exactly what they are getting. At the center my folks go to, it is usually a bed of rice with a variety of toppings including one or two plant-based dishes such as stir-fried greens or braised tofu, and one or two protein items such as fried fish or soy-sauce chicken. One might describe this assembly of foods as rice plus two veggies with two protein foods. The rice usually is about half the contents of the container. The veggies are about one quarter of it, and the protein portion one quarter, as well.

Sometimes my parents buy two or three of them. Each is a good amount of food that can last them for several meals. What they do not eat at the senior citizen center, they usually bring home and put the container(s) in the refrigerator. They can heat them up in the microwave when hungry. I have had one for breakfast, lunch or dinner. They might do the same or eat all the contents at one meal or part of an item to supplement other dishes they may be cooking to go with it.

These lunch box containers have no nutritional information in or on them. They do not contain any information about how many calories are packed within. They do not tell if there are any trans-fats nor do they allude to whether or not they are gluten-free. There is no clue about how many grams of sodium is in them per serving, nor any idea if they are full of sugar or have any artificial preservatives. There is no information about what percentage of the daily intake of essential nutrients the USDA, CDC, or the FDA recommends for a senior citizen.

Before the seniors at their center, my parents included, purchase one or more of these lunch boxes they do look to see what is being offered including what type of meat or fish they come with. Is it chicken, beef or pork, or is it fish or some other seafood? Is it soy-sauce stewed or is it fried? More importantly, what type of vegetable comes with the rice and what are the protein item or items? Is there bok cai, or snow pea shoots, or bitter melon? Was it lightly cooked with garlic? What they can not tell is if anything includes a dash or more of salt or any MSG.

Because these lunch boxes do not contain a nutrition or ingredient label, for all they know, the contents could even be something other than food. Even if they knew what was in any one of them, it is not clear to them nor to anyone else purchasing them if the foods are edible and/or if they will like them. Purchasers need to trust the contents to be safe, also that they will like them.

For two dollars, it is a steal. At their center, they do know they are usually cooked by one of the local Chinese restaurants. As I understand it, local restaurants take turns providing these lunch boxes for these senior citizens. I also understand that these meals are subsidized by some type of government program, hence the reason they are this inexpensive.

There is no menu planning per se, but the seniors are a tough crowd and the cooks know that whatever they cook needs to meet what these elders expect. Providing a proper lunch box is a civic duty they feel; these older generations being supported by younger ones. Knowing what I know about the Chinese community I grew up with, I think the cooks usually choose dishes they might serve their own parents and grandparents. After all, they in turn once were served the same dishes throughout their lives.

The reality is, that those who prepare these lunch boxes are not trained nutritionists nor are they dietitians. The food in them is made without formal nutritional guidance on daily requirements such as fat, salt, and fiber set by experts. Anyway, it is difficult for ordinary citizens to discern healthy versus unhealthy food, yet here we trust a cook from China who probably never had any formal education about food and diet to make these lunch boxes fo seniors at this senior center.

My folks can see into these lunch boxes. They contain some veggies considered good, meat that may be less so, and rice that they and most southern Chinese adore. It is hard for them or for me to say if it is served in the proper proportions or with any sufficient nutritional guidelines.

The lunch boxes are distributed at their senior center without much fanfare. Towards the end of the scheduled morning activities, they are delivered by the restaurant and the senior center cafeteria is the site of their distribution. As seniors begin to arrive to purchase them, casual inspection does ensue. The purchasers might ask do they contain rice, two veggies, and two proteins? Sometimes one box only has one veggie and one protein; is that OK? There can be an important flutter of qualitative checks that surface from the buzz of conversations between the seniors ready to purchase them.

They may ask: Kan de zen me yang, wanting to know how the foods look. Or they may be asking cai xin xian ma or are the veggies fresh? Some might ask cai xian guo you ma or did they flash-fry them first? Perhaps they want to know if hen you ni ma or are they too oily, or rou wen de zen me yang meaning how does the meat smell?

For a those who want and cannot gather nutritional information about the lunch box, perhaps there are feelings some unease and anxiety. Does a sense of nutritional panic set in if an individual is left to guess at how safe or how dangerous the contents might be? Eating the lunch box might be akin to playing a game of Russian-roulette if there are allergic reactions they might cause, or how much weight gain they might induce. Do any of the seniors wonder how many years they might take away from their precious lives?

Once the collective qualitative checks have taken place, seniors exchange their cash for a lunch box or two. Most eat them at the senior center, though some occasionally do take them home to consume later or share with a loved one who might be hungry and unable to attend.

I have been on the receiving end of these take-home boxes and they are not the most amazing Chinese food ever. They are pretty standard fare, good and filling. Every now and then there is an item someone does not like so they probably do not eat it. In general, the food is decent, often delicious.

Delicious. What if it is delicious? Delicious can kill a person according to the experts. Candy is delicious, butter is delicious, deep fried food is delicious, ice cream is delicious, French fries are delicious, and Doritos are delicious, too. This box of food with no nutrition facts was probably cooked by immigrants who know very little about the science of nutrition, so what if it is delicious? What if it is super delicious?

After lunch at the senior center my folks often go to, the cooks from the supplying restaurant stand in front of the crowd and take a poll about the quality of the food. Senior citizens raise their hands to agree or disagree. This is the only feedback the cook’s receive for the next lunch box they will prepare.

Fan gou le ma, yes, they do need to know if the food was hot enough. Also, rou tai ying ma, that is, was the meat too tough? And, tsai tai lao ma or were the vegetables old and fibrous? They might ask wei dao tai zhong ma or was the flavor and aroma too heavy? What about tsai xia fan ma, did the veggies go well with the rice? They might want to know if they should make the same dishes another week. The cook’s can see how many of these lunch boxes sell; to them, that is most important. For the seniors, more important is if they like the taste and contents, but is that enough?
Fa-Tai Shieh works for the NYC Department of Citywide Administrative Services as Director of Citywide Procurement. He has taught food study courses at The New School, Hunter College, and at New York University. He is also a farmer who has been involved with various urban farming projects in New York City.

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