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Food Czar To Oversee Meal Delivery for Elderly After Early Stumbles

Kathryn Garcia
Kathryn Garcia, currently serving as emergency food czar, pictured at City Hall last year.
Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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City Hall is restructuring a two-week-old emergency program that delivers meals to more than 25,000 senior center clients after complaints that early stumbles left some elderly people short on food, officials said.

Initially run out of the Department for the Aging, the effort will now operate under the city’s coronavirus-response food czar, Kathryn Garcia, and be consolidated into a wider emergency program known as Get Food NYC.

Any senior citizen in New York City seeking meal deliveries is now being asked to contact 311, rather than signing up with a local senior center.

“If someone needs food, we need to get it to them fast,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday. “We cannot have — of all the things in the world that cannot miss — this can’t miss.”

The Department for the Aging launched a home delivery initiative last month after closing nearly 300 senior centers it funds throughout the city and which previously provided millions of meals annually on premises.

The senior centers, which are operated by nonprofits under city contracts, transitioned to a grab-and-go meal format on March 16. As the number of COVID-19 cases mounted, the centers moved to a delivery-only model on March 30.

Multiple senior center operators say they had difficulties getting Department for the Aging to ensure meals went to the people who needed them, even to simply add clients omitted from the agency’s delivery list or sign up new participants.

In a conference call with some operators this week, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy, Kate MacKenzie, said those gaps are being addressed immediately, while wider reforms would take about two weeks to enact.

The coming changes include adjusting the Get Food program for seniors so they can submit orders less frequently than the currently required once every two days.

“Direct deliveries will continue for seniors that have been enrolled by their senior centers, and the food — we’re just going to ensure the consistency, the timeliness, the appropriateness of that food,” she said, according to a recording of Monday’s conference call reviewed by THE CITY.

“We certainly are acknowledging that there’s been a lot of requests for names and for lists and that’s a part of the process that we’re unraveling,” she added. “We are ensuring that everyone who has input their name either through their senior center — certainly through 311 — are going to be able to get meals in an incredibly timely way.”

Early Stumbles

Last Friday, in response to a question about senior food delivery issues reported by PoliticoNY, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he was unaware of any problems with the program.

Later that evening, City Hall Press Secretary Freddi Goldstein tweeted that problems with delivery to a development in Tribeca would be resolved by the following morning.

On Wednesday, the mayor struck a different tone, imploring anyone with missed deliveries to contact 311, as he announced a wider $170 million emergency food plan to counter the impact of economic distress during the coronavirus crisis.

The plan calls for purchasing $50 million of shelf-stable food for an emergency reserve in the event of food supply disruptions, which officials insisted have not manifested thus far.

It anticipates maintaining grab-and-go food distribution for children and adults based in more than 400 public school buildings, and delivering as many as 15 million meals to people’s homes throughout May.

311 Complaints

As for senior meals, data provided by Department for the Aging shows nearly 200 complaints to the city’s 311 call line between March 30 and April 12 from seniors asking about missed meal deliveries. The complaints aren’t included in the city’s online open data portal because they contain home addresses, officials said.

On Monday’s conference call with the mayor’s office, an official with Lenox Hill Neighborhood House in Manhattan said the group had been submitting names daily to the city of seniors who weren’t receiving food.

They were supposed to get five meals per week, just like at the senior centers, through companies newly contracted by the city.

“We submitted the lists daily to DFTA for the last two weeks and we have not seen any changes in the delivery,” the official said on the call.

Reps from the Manhattan nonprofit didn’t respond to a request for further details.

Other providers acknowledge the move to a delivery system for tens of thousands of elderly New Yorkers was no simple task, and attribute many of the problems to growing pains.

But they say the process for reconciling who should be getting the deliveries has been needlessly complicated because DFTA created its list without consulting them — and has refused to share it.

This means when someone calls a senior center to say they didn’t receive their meals, the providers have no idea if that person is registered to receive delivery service or not.

“We as community organizations have on-the-ground experience and we know the people, and we’re not being treated as meaningful partners,” said Wayne Ho, director of the Chinese American Planning Council, which had at least 15 clients call about missing deliveries on Friday.

“From a policy perspective, we’re happy that Kathryn Garcia is the food czar,” he added. “We need DFTA to be part of the food strategy, but not in charge.”

‘Chemical Warfare’

Last month, Warren Schreiber and his wife requested direct meal delivery through the Clearview Senior Center in Bayside, Queens, in order to reduce their potential contact with the virus outside of the house.

Senior Warren Schreiber said the city sent him a package of snacks instead of a full meal during the coronavirus epidemic.
Senior Warren Schreiber said the city sent him a package of snacks instead of a full meal during the coronavirus epidemic.
Courtesy of Warren Schreiber

But the first package didn’t arrive until Friday, the 10th day of the program. And instead of full meals, the box contained Chef Boyardee microwavable pasta cups, chocolate chip cookies, graham crackers and other snacks.

Schreiber’s been assured the couple is on the list for deliveries, but no additional meals arrived as of Wednesday.

“It’s almost become a joke in our household because we laugh about it, but it’s not funny,” said Schreiber, 76. Getting a delivery, he added, “would just make me kind of add to my sense of security.”

Senior Warren Schreiber said the city sent him a package of snacks instead of a full meal during the coronavirus epidemic.
A meal package received Friday in Bayside, Queens.
Courtesy of Warren Schreiber

Schreiber said he was forced to drive to the grocery store Tuesday to pick up essentials — a trip he tries to do sparingly because it can feel “traumatic.” Said Schreiber, “It’s like getting ready to fight chemical warfare.”

“We are part of that vulnerable population,” he added. “It puts us more at risk the more times we have to go to that supermarket.”

‘We Can’t Cut Corners’

City officials acknowledged the “growing pains” of the transition to home delivery, and expressed confidence in Garcia to fill in any gaps.

The mayor tapped Garcia for the food czar role on March 21 for the duration of the pandemic, on top of her duties as commissioner of the Department of Sanitation.

On Wednesday, she said she’s building stopgaps in the delivery program for seniors so that missed deliveries are immediately remedied. She also promised to re-engage the senior centers in the work.

“As we move forward we will continue to strengthen all of our systems to support that delivery mechanism — both through the Department for the Aging and through the Get Food portal — and make that more seamless for everyone involved,” said Garcia.

City and DFTA officials noted that a separate program that delivered meals to more than 17,000 homebound seniors before the coronavirus pandemic started has continued without disruption during the crisis.

City Councilmember Margaret Chin, chair of the Council’s Committee on Aging, said the city needs to recognize how many of the former senior center clients depend on the daily meal to stay healthy.

She said the problems that have surfaced thus far shouldn’t have been so difficult to fix.

“For this direct meal delivery program to be a success, the city has to take a hard look at what needs to be improved and adopt an all-in approach to ensure no seniors go hungry,” she said. “We can’t cut corners here.”

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