It’s not just children who are told to eat their greens.
The city’s Department for the Aging is now requiring senior centers to provide at least one plant-based meal a week to New Yorkers older than 60 who eat at senior centers or have food delivered to their homes, according to an internal June 23 memo obtained by THE CITY.
The menu change — which allows plant-based entrees to replace the weekly vegetarian meal that senior centers already must provide — is part of a City Hall-led health kick that affects millions of meals for the golden-age set.
“Plant-based” is not the same as vegetarian, which includes dairy and eggs, or vegan, which excludes all food from any animal source. According to the Department for the Aging (DFTA): “The difference is that in plant-based meals the main protein source in the entrée must be a minimally processed, plant-based protein. The meal can still have a small amount of dairy or eggs, but the main protein must be plant based and non-processed.”
The health push comes as senior center operators struggle to bring attendance back to pre-pandemic levels. The city says around 22,000 seniors showed up daily to lunch from October 2022 through January of this year, down from an average of nearly 30,000 prior to the pandemic.
Overall, average senior center participation has dropped from 29,201 in the fiscal year that ended June 2018, to 18,967 in the fiscal year through June 2022, according to the Mayor’s Management Report — a 35% decline.
Providers contracted by the city have delivered more than 4 million meals to homebound older residents in the current fiscal year, while serving more than 5.5 million meals at senior centers, an agency spokesperson said.
Advocates say the response to the menu change has been “really mixed,” with some seniors grumbling to THE CITY that they turn up their noses at the plant-based dishes.
Nancy Lou Riccio, who has been attending group meals at the Greenwich House senior center in Manhattan since moving to the city in January, called the plant-based meals “awful.”
“I don’t come on Mondays anymore,” she said.
Other updates in the notice include increasing the fruit and vegetable portion in every meal from a ½ cup to 1 cup — and no longer counting juice as a fruit. In addition, processed meat servings are capped at twice a month, while beef can only be served once a week per meal type.
The adjustments to the offerings arrived with the level of city support for senior centers in flux.
City funding for meals at senior centers is expected to decrease in 2024 from $259 million to $254.9 million, according to a March preliminary budget report.
The head of an advocacy organization whose members are senior center providers said the response to the greener menu offerings has varied widely across the city.
“Some of our providers have already been doing plant-based meals at least once a week, if not more,” said Michelle Jackson, executive director of the Human Services Council. “So for them, this has been an easy change.”
But she said others have been left in the lurch on lunch.
“This obviously does create a new expense because it’s a change in the menu, it requires new planning, it requires new vendors,” Jackson said.
Most seniors prefer meals with an animal protein and are not in favor of just plant-based foods, said Steve Mei, director of the Brooklyn Community Services, which operates four senior centers.
The plant-based meals will cost more to produce and operators may have to hire a new “meal vendor,” he said, adding that some seniors “shop around” and go to different centers based on what’s on the menu.
“We do have to make sure that we cater to the interest and the palates of our community members,” he said.
Open Minds and Mouths
Phillip Solomon, who sat among friends at Greenwich House, said the new meals don’t bother him one bit and have even gotten him to consider changing his eating habits.
“There’s a large part of me that wishes I could be totally vegetarian,” he said.
The meals are plant-based, but not vegan. The meals can still have a small amount of dairy or eggs, according to the Aging Department.
Greenwich House adopted Meatless Mondays some years ago and also offers plant-based meals on Mondays under the new mandate.
Laura Marcera, the associate director of Older Adult Services at Greenwich House, said that this has made the move to plant-based meals relatively straightforward. She also credits the attitude of Greenwich Village residents who have been open-minded about eating their greens.
“It’s a progressive center,” she said.
Darlene Nation, a senior at Greenwich House, said she has been enthusiastic about the introduction of plant-based meals, but only to a point.
While the Californian vegetarian burger is “delicious,” she said, the bean burger tastes “like a hockey puck.”
After DFTA sent out the notice in late June about the changes, centers had until July 3 to alter their menus. However, the department says it gave notice of the adjustments in 2022 and offered an April training session on how to implement them.
For providers, the process has been tricky and in some cases, costlier, because of adjustments to food production and preparation, said Jackson of the Human Services Council.
DFTA said funding for senior center meals remains the same for now, highlighting that plant-based meals typically cost less than meat-based meals.
It cited how NYC Health + Hospitals — which operates 11 hospitals in The Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens — saved 55 cents on every plant-based meal.
Jackson said the changes have not been well-received by older adults who prefer not to be “dictated [to] about their health needs or what’s good for them.”
“Let them choose what milk they want or what kind of food they want to eat — don’t mandate at this stage in their lives,” said a senior citizen who works at an older adult center and who asked not to be identified by name. “They’re gone through the ups and downs of life.
“There should be other options.”