Before the pandemic, staff at the Chinese-American Planning Council delivered up to 120 meals a day to frail and homebound seniors in the Lower East Side and Chinatown.

That’s what the 55-year-old organization is paid to do by the city, as one of more than two dozen nonprofits that comprise the city’s home-delivered food network, known colloquially as “meals on wheels.”

Wayne Ho, who heads the council, said the number of seniors who need meals has risen at least 40% since the coronavirus outbreak — and the group is struggling to keep up.

“It’s been a lot of cobbling together private resources and volunteers and different food opportunities we haven’t worked with in the past,” he said.

Now, a pre-crisis call for expanding meal offerings — with action plans due June 1 — has advocates for seniors worried that food groups will be forced to do even more with thinly stretched resources.

Good Idea, Bad Timing?

In January, the Department for the Aging sought proposals to overhaul the senior delivery program — including by increasing the cultural variety of cuisines offered.

In proposal documents obtained by THE CITY, the agency stipulates that each contractor should provide up to 20 choices for meals every week — including options for Halal, Kosher, Latin, Caribbean, Chinese or Korean food, depending on the neighborhood, and both frozen and hot dishes.

It’s a “progressive” idea that allows providers to “respect our constituents,” said Rachel Sherrow, chief program officer at Citymeals on Wheels, a nonprofit that caters to seniors on weekends and holidays, which aren’t covered by the city budget.

But the city goal is “a lot more involved than what the current system does,” she noted.

“You can’t do that with the same amount of money, or the same type of staff members,” Sherrow said. “These ideas that are so great — they have to be supported with more money, and with training.”

The level of funding offered by the Department for the Aging, which oversees the food delivery programs, is not nearly enough, providers said.

The city is offering $9.58 per meal, according to the request for proposals documents — up from the $8.78 per meal providers currently receive on average, according to LiveOn NY, a senior advocacy group.

But that’s still well below what it costs to operate the home delivery program, said Pakhi Kane, deputy executive director of the Stanley Isaacs Neighborhood Center, which runs a senior meal delivery service on the East Side between 59th to 142nd streets.

The program also includes regular wellness checks, with a case management system staffed by clinical social workers “who check in with that older person to see what their needs are,” Kane said. “And for most of these folks, their needs are really quite vast.”

A ‘High Risk’ Deal

According to a 2015 analysis by the think tank Mathematica, a home-delivered meal in an “urban” area cost $11.78, on average. 

That figure was cited by the Human Services Council, a network of nonprofits, in its assessment of the Department for the Aging contract request, which the group rated as “high risk” for applicants. 

Ho sees the move as part of a system where the city under-funds providers across the board, citing a HSC report that found that government contracts typically pay only 80 cents on the dollars of what a program costs to run.

“That’s like the city contracting with a construction company to lay 100 miles of road and then they tell the construction company, ‘We’re only going to pay for 80 miles of road,’” he said.

He and other providers are trying to make the city’s June 1 deadline, but it’s been a big challenge, he said.

Isaacs Center volunteers deliver a meal. Credit: Obed Obwoge/Isaacs Center

The original proposal due date, March 2, was extended by DFTA four times during New York’s pause order to allow providers more time to respond, the agency said. But some who make the deliveries say they’re still not ready.

Allison Nickerson, executive director at LiveOn NY, said completing a city procurement request represents a huge burden for many of the nonprofits already contending with day-to-day challenges of operating during a global health crisis.

“It’s the same people, often, who are applying who are running home-delivered meals programs, with a 20% uptick with extremely hard cases … They’re dealing with a very vulnerable high-needs population,” she said. “They’re trying to just maintain and keep up.”

‘Universe Has Changed’

On Thursday, Councilmember Margaret Chin, chair of the City Council’s Aging Committee, urged the DFTA to further extend the deadline for its “ill-timed and underfunded” request — and urged the city to boost support for the meals-on-wheels providers.

“If we want to give food insecure seniors a fighting chance to survive this crisis, the city needs to support the providers who are tirelessly working to feed them, not stunt their capacity and growth,” she said in a statement to THE CITY.

For now, DFTA is sticking to its June 1 deadline — and reported receiving “dozens of submissions” with more expected before Monday.

“This (Request for Proposals) will help increase meal options for this program, including the availability of culturally aligned meals that reflect our city’s diversity, all while ensuring that meals continue to be high quality, healthy and nutritious,” said Suzanne Myklebust, an agency spokesperson.

She did not respond to questions about whether funding would be increased.

To Kane at the Isaacs Center, the city’s demands on food providers does not match up with the on-the-ground reality.

“The RFP was written well before this public health crisis, so it’s not really reflective of how the universe has changed,” she said. “And that’s a problem.”