ANCHORAGE - Around lunch time on a Thursday the smell of garlic and chilies cuts the icy air outside the old Salvation Army church on the corner of Eighth Avenue and Barrow.
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Inside, Mi Jin Kim - a 27-year-old woman from Seoul - pulled a vast bowl of marinated pork from the refrigerator in a small, warm kitchen, and Jae Soon Kim, who is not a relation, shook splashes of rice vinegar into a thick, red sauce. A kettle of cassia seed tea bubbled. Two fat rice makers steamed. The women eyed the clock. Soon it would be the lunch rush.
It's not a new downtown restaurant. It's a soup kitchen catering to Korean-speaking, low-income seniors, a growing demographic among the elderly in Anchorage.
The lunch service, part of the Salvation Army's Older Alaskans Program, is the first ethnic-food charity in the city, serving meals of soup, kimchee and the spicy meat dish bulgogi three days a week.
The church has dished up food to seniors for decades, but in recent years the number of people who showed up to eat gradually declined. Before the kitchen started serving Korean food in October, only a handful signed in for meals. Now 20 or 30 show up, most of them Korean, though everyone is welcome.
"We (like) some different tastes than Americans," said Mi Jin Kim, who runs the program, pointing to the chili paste and vinegar in the kitchen.
"An yong ha se yo!" people greeted each other as they came in the door and hung their coats.
"An yong ha se yo!" Kim called back from the kitchen in a cheerful sing-song.
People poured smoky-tasting tea and settled at the tables, set with napkins and chopsticks. A few men gathered around a Korean board game. Thursday is an exciting day because after lunch there usually is, as the older Koreans said, "the bingo." Winners can take home frozen pies.
Seniors are among the fastest-growing age demographic in the state, but the Salvation Army has seen the number of Korean-speaking elderly at meal sites grow faster than the older population at large. Now, though Koreans make up about 2 percent of the population, about 40 percent of those served in the Older Alaskans Program speak Korean. That's a 30 percent increase over the number five years ago, according to Salvation Army figures. Roughly 10 percent of Koreans in Alaska are older than 65, just a little less than twice the rate of the general population, according to the 2000 U.S. census.
Alaska has a reputation as a good place for Koreans to retire, said Dean Lee, the Salvation Army captain and pastor who leads Korean-language Sunday services for a 40-person congregation.
"In Alaska they give a lot of benefits to elderly people," he said, listing the Permanent Fund dividend program, senior housing and the state bonus for low-income seniors.
Many in the lunch crowd had moved from other states in the last few years to be with younger relatives in Anchorage, he said. Most of the seniors who come for lunch, Korean or not, are living on a fixed income, Kim said. Usually they average around $1,000 a month. Sometimes that means they have to choose between food and other necessities, like gas or utilities.
The lunches, offered in exchange for donations, help ease food costs, while improving nutrition and providing an outlet for socializing. The majority of older Koreans don't speak English even if they have lived in the U.S. for a long time, she said, which adds to their isolation.
"Somehow Korean people have a hard time to learn English when they become adult," Lee said.
Community leaders estimate that 6,000 to 8,000 Koreans live in Anchorage. Koreans are the second-largest Asian group in Anchorage behind Filipinos. More Koreans speak their language at home than any other large ethnic group in the city, according to the census.
Just before the meal, everyone bowed their heads as Lee led a short prayer, both in Korean and English. Then Kim and other church volunteers brought food to the tables on trays.
Merna Nowell, 97, has been visiting the church for lunch and bingo longer than anybody.
"In the olden days, we had hundreds of people in the line, then gradually some of them went to the Pioneers' Home, or probably moved to the Lower 48 or passed away," she said.
Since the menu changed, things have picked up, but she's occasionally found herself the only non-Korean in the room, which she doesn't mind too much.
"Well, the food is more interesting and a little spicier," she said.
Paul Han, 76, scooped up chopstick-loads of turup, a dish made of spicy seasoned greens. He moved to Alaska three years ago from New York.
"Nice air, nice water," he said of his reason for moving, and gestured at the church volunteers. "These people (are) very kind."
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