The popular pandemic-inspired GetFood NYC program for senior citizens and homebound New Yorkers who can’t afford food delivery services will shut down when federal funding ends in October, THE CITY has learned.
The de Blasio administration is working to make sure the people covered by the program are taken care of by other food assistance programs including meals served at senior centers, according to city officials and advocates.
“No one is going to lose access to emergency food,” said Joshua Goodman, a spokesperson for the city’s Sanitation Department, which has run the program, in coordination with the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy, since it was launched shortly after the pandemic hit in March 2020.
Some nonprofits that supply free and low-cost food to New Yorkers are worried the end of the program will strain their services and others helping out.
“The challenge is allowing time for the system in place to adjust again and basically double their roles with [short] notice,” said Beth Shapiro, executive director of Citymeals on Wheels, which feeds the homebound elderly.
The number of GetFood’s home-delivered free meals peaked at one million a day in April, May and June in 2020, according to City Hall. The number has since dropped to 26,000 people per week.
The entire GetFood program has cost the city approximately $500 million over the past 17 months, with at least half expected to be covered by the federal government, according to Goodman.
Money to Buy Their Own Food
The de Blasio administration is also proposing expanding a program to boost benefits for people who need more than federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) assistance, according to Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, a nonprofit that advocates nationwide but was founded in New York.
“The GetFood program made sense for the short emergency,” he said, citing recent talks with city officials. “It was not a long, sustainable way to fight hunger. It was not affordable.”
He cited the food bank expansion in the 1980s as a temporary response to the “Reagan Recession.”
“Then they became permanent,” he said. “That wasn’t necessarily a great advance.”
Most people much prefer money to buy their own food rather than getting delivered sandwiches or other meals, he added.
In May, the Department for the Aging (DFTA) gave operators of the city’s senior centers permission to provide free grab-and-go meals. Some have also now resumed offering in-house food.
There were an estimated one million food-insecure people in New York City before the city went on pause in early March 2020, according to City Hall.
That number spiked to 2.2 million in the first few months of the pandemic, officials said, calculating the figure based on unemployment claims and new SNAP applications.
Fewer are currently in need of the city’s assistance because of a major increase in federal aid, but many experts believe at least a million New Yorkers still live in food-insecure homes.
On Aug. 15, the Biden administration announced a massive increase in food stamp benefits effective in October. Average benefits will go up by more than 25%, under the new rules set to take effect in October.
The changes come after years of advocates arguing that many people spent their limited monthly stipend on food in the first few weeks.
‘More Than Just Hope’
The de Blasio administration has been slowly paring back the GetFood program. In August 2020, the city began to demand participants re-register for home food deliveries every two weeks, up from once a month.
Their advocates say an untold number of seniors, many of whom are technology averse, were inadvertently dropped from the program as a result of the policy change.
“I would hope that the city will do more than just hope that providers will pick up people in need of food,” said Michelle Jackson, executive director for the Human Services Council, an umbrella group that represents 170 nonprofits in New York City.
“The city needs to actively work with providers to ensure they have the funding to feed all the people from the GetFood program,” she added. “The federal funding ends but the pandemic continues.”