By Sabina Mollot
It was 35 years ago when Gael Greene, a food critic, read in the New York Times that many seniors would be going without meals on Thanksgiving weekend. Greene immediately called chef and cookbook author James Beard, who, along with the city’s Department of the Aging, worked together to raise enough money to get 6,000 meals delivered to the homes of the elderly in time for Christmas. The project, Citymeals-on-Wheels, didn’t end there, though. It continued to ensure that New York’s senior citizens wouldn’t have to go without meals on weekends or holidays when senior centers are closed. Demand for the service has only increased since then, with 18,000 homebound elderly currently benefitting from the program each year.
Seventy of those individuals live in Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village, an increase from 2014 when there were 47.
To qualify for the home deliveries, seniors can’t be physically able to shop or cook for themselves. For that reason, the organization has also become a lifeline for isolated individuals.
More than 60 percent of Citymeals recipients are over 80 years old; 23 percent are over 90; more than 200 have lived at least a century. All recipients are chronically disabled by conditions such as vision loss, diabetes, arthritis and heart disease. Nearly all need assistance walking. It is estimated that 66 percent use a cane, 39 percent use a walker and 16 percent use a wheelchair.
Of all Citymeals recipients, 57 percent live alone; 40 percent rarely or never leave their homes; 8 percent have no one with whom they can talk.
Council Member Dan Garodnick, who allocated $5,000 to the program in fiscal year 2016 and again in 2017 said he periodically tags along when the food deliveries are made in Stuy Town, to chat with his older neighbors about how the program is going.
“In an area with a high concentration of seniors, it is an important and necessary service and one I am pleased to support,” he said.
Throughout Garodnick’s East Side district, 443 seniors are recipients of 63,000 weekend, holiday and emergency meals from Citymeals.
The council member’s last visit was in early November when one of the recipients was Ellen Fidelman. Fidelman, a retired Met Life employee who’s lived in Stuyvesant Town for the past 35 years, told a Town & Village reporter the deliveries are a big help.
She can’t do her own cooking due to cerebral palsy, so she’s been a Citymeals recipient for the past two years.
Fidelman noted the service is always prompt, coming between 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. consistently, with extra food brought on Fridays for the weekends.
“The whole system is very well organized,” she said. “It’s fresh food, very nourishing food.”
She added that since she doesn’t have family nearby, she appreciated the check-ins the service provides. “It’s a wonderful service. I’m very pleased.”
Jose Luis Sanchez, programs and aging initiatives manager at Citymeals on Wheels, said the house calls serve multiple purposes.
Many recipients, he said, are at risk for malnutrition and the delivery service means they don’t only have to worry where their next meals are coming from, but they are also able to stay in their own homes “where they feel comfortable and secure.
“Additionally,” said Sanchez, “a daily check-in ensures our homebound elderly are safe and a little less isolated and lonely.”
Demand for Citymeals’ service has increased since Hurricane Sandy, with the organization’s administrative costs covered by its board of directors, the city and sponsors. One hundred percent of all public donations are used for preparation and delivery of meals.
The total amount of allocations from the City Council for fiscal year 2016 was $600,000.
Though eligibility for deliveries isn’t income based, Citymeals Executive Director Beth Shapiro said 57 percent of the meal recipients are eligible for Medicaid and their poverty levels very closely mirror that of the city. She once mentioned that in many cases, for recipients, they have to choose between splitting a pill and eating.
One recipient, another Stuy Town resident named Mary Petrone, told Town & Village she has to be “on a strict, strict budget,” as she lives on Social Security and some savings. But that money, noted the retired secretary, “is going, going, going, so it will be gone.” She has had a cancer-related operation and has glaucoma in her eye, making her “officially a handicapped person.” She found out about Citymeals after a hospital stay in 2012 from her doctor and has been utilizing the service ever since. Petrone said she particularly enjoys the chicken meals, meatloaf (brought once a week), baked eggplant and the spinach lasagna. They don’t serve the lasagna too often, she said, but when it comes, “it’s very good.”
Occasionally, there are also meals prepared by chefs at New York City restaurants. Petrone was once hand-delivered a meal by restaurateur Daniel Boulud and another time, in 2014, she got a special delivery from Italian restaurant chefs Scott Conant of Scarpetta and Ryan Hardy of Charlie Bird.
Like many neighbors, Petrone saves a little money by not having an air conditioner in her apartment, so this is one of the reason she’s frequently checked up on by Citymeals reps. Still, she’s in better shape than a lot of recipients, as she is able to take her twice-a-week walks to the Associated supermarket on her own, using her walker. It helps, she said, that she religiously exercises her legs even while lying back in her bed.
Her doctor has told Petrone, “You’re remarkable at 88 years old, but just take it easy and don’t do anything crazy when you’re outside,” she said. And, she insisted, she doesn’t. “I don’t go too far. I’m thankful to the Lord that I’m as good as I am right now.”