It was at breakfast that he noticed. Brendan Lonergan is the CEO of Beehive Industries, a Sydney-based not-for-profit that provides support for seniors and those living with disabilities. Every day, Beehive hosts a free breakfast, morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea for those in need, and every day, Brendan joins the community for these meals.
“I eat breakfast with everyone in the morning. I started to notice that all of these quite slight, older people were all eating a lot more than me – and I’m a pretty solid fellow. So I started to ask: ‘What did you have for dinner last night?’, ‘What are you eating at home?’. And they’d say, ‘Oh, just a bit of toast.’ They’d say, ‘It’s only me, there’s no point making something bigger.’”
For Brendan, whose company’s mission is to service this community, there were two clear problems: the people they were trying to assist lived alone, and on a pension. “Immediately we knew we had to teach people how to cook. It’s not enough for them to come in and be fed here. We wanted a program that would show these folks that it’s simple to make healthy food, and that you can do it on a low budget.”
The program, simply titled Low Cost Meals for Seniors, was launched in January 2016 with the help of ambassador and former MasterChef contestant Kumar Pereira. A longtime supporter of Beehive, he was alarmed when he heard some members of the community talk about only ever eating fast food for dinner because it was cheap and easy to come by.
“A lot of people just couldn’t be bothered, which I thought was quite sad,” says Kumar. “I wanted to show them that cooking can be easy – and fun, so I asked a few people if they would be interested in learning to cook a cheap yet wholesome and nutritious meal, and they said yes.” Working together, Brendan and Kumar established the program, teaching seniors how to cook simple, nutritious meals like tuna fish cakes, fried cauliflower ‘rice’, spiced pumpkin and potato soup and poached chicken and soba noodles.
For the cooking lessons themselves, seniors can drop in on regular classes to see Kumar cooking live (and cook along with him), or access the videos online.
Simplicity is always the key. Kumar bases his recipes on what’s seasonally available, inexpensive and quick – no recipe takes longer than 20 minutes. There are other ways the program is simplified, too.
“We make the language very simple,” says Brendan, “because a lot of our people have never cooked before, or they have very limited knowledge. So we don’t say ‘caramelise the onions’ because if you’ve never boiled an egg before, you don’t know what that means.”
The videos are all shot in real time, so if a recipe takes 20 minutes to make, it’s a 20-minute video where every step is shown. There are also subtitles for the hearing impaired. The meals, which typically serve one or two people, can easily be doubled.
The program has been a huge hit, even among those who’ve never cooked before. Brendan recalls the story of a man living with a permanent disability who’d never learned to cook. “He came to our classes and ended up making the best fritters of anyone! It was amazing. He felt so good because he knew then that he could do it. That’s all you’ve got to do – introduce the idea.”
And indeed, for the seniors in the class, there are many men for whom cooking is a foreign concept. “There’s a generation of men out there who have never made themselves anything more complicated than toast,” says Brendan. “We see men who have lost their wives and are wasting away because there’s nobody to feed them. It’s very sad. We show them that they can spend $3 or $4 and make a great meal, very simply.”
The program has partnered with Oz Harvest and often receives donations from airlines – single-serve cereal packets, snack bars and bottles of juice make great giveaways for the seniors who come to Beehive. As Brendan says, living on the pension – $280 a week – means that you have to be incredibly frugal, especially when you live in Sydney.
“If your rent is $160, you only have $120 left over for everything else. So you have to shop wisely, or take some donations. Luckily, we can donate and we do.”
The program has been a huge success, not just for the seniors who have learned how to cook, but for Brendan and Kumar, too. “Teaching someone to cook makes a real difference to their lives,” says Kumar. “You’ve given them a new skill, yes, but more than that you’ve given them a tremendous sense of confidence and pride in their accomplishments. It’s amazing to watch people’s transformations.”
Brendan’s dream is to get seniors all over the country cooking, using Beehive’s program. “We film the cooking videos so anyone can access them – I want people in Perth, people in Darwin, to see the videos and feel that they can start cooking.”
Next up for Beehive is a cookbook that will be available digitally, including all the recipes from Kumar’s classes. The book is still a way off, but Brendan has high hopes for it.
“I want to have the e-book distributed to aged care services all over Australia. I want this book to teach people how to cook. That’s the dream.”
Beehive Industries is in need of volunteers to help with the filming and editing aspects of the Low Cost Meals for Seniors program (they have equipment and software but are in need of helping hands). Contact Brendan Longergan on firstname.lastname@example.org.