Citymeals on Wheels Serves Its 60 Millionth Meal… and It’s Still Going Strong

Food pantries are a great idea. Some people donate to get food and maintain a facility. Other people volunteer their time to serve food and clean up.

And people who can’t afford food are able to walk in and get a meal they otherwise would not be able to have.

But what about elderly and disabled folks who are not able to leave their homes without assistance?

They get just as hungry as people who are more mobile. And unless they have relatives or friends to help them, they might have to stay hungry for a while.

18,000 Get Food Daily

Those were some of the thoughts going through Gael Greene’s head in 1981. She is a longtime restaurant critic for New York magazine.

So, she decided to do something about the situation. She teamed up with cookbook author and teacher James Beard.

They raised funds to prepare and deliver about 6,000 meals to the nearby homebound elderly in New York City on Christmas Day.

Thus Citymeals on Wheels was founded. The non-profit organization has now served more than 60 million meals over the past 38 years.

Today, approximately 18,000 homebound elderly residents in New York get food and companionship on a daily basis. Thanks to Citymeals on Wheels.

167,000 Food Insecure Seniors

The Big Apple setting is ideal for this type of program. One in five New York City residents is over age 65.

In the past year, the number of residents 85 and older has increased by 35 percent.

Brooklyn is home to more older adults than any county in the state. Queens is second.

There are more than 167,000 food insecure seniors in the New York City area. That’s one in 10 senior citizens. This means they lack inexpensive and reliable access to healthy food.

About 18 percent of the city’s older population must choose between rent, medicine and food.

Most Live Alone

That’s where Citymeals on Wheels comes in. They work in collaboration with the Department for the Aging and other non-profit groups to prepare and deliver food to homebound senior citizens every day.

It is estimated that 57 percent of Citymeals on Wheels recipients live alone. Some 40 percent rarely leave their homes. And 8 percent do not come in contact with anyone other than their food deliverer each day.

Beth Shapiro has been the executive director of Citymeals on Wheels since 2011. Here’s what she says.

“The simple act of delivering a nutritious meal and checking in is often all they need to age with dignity in their own homes and communities.”

Donations Well Used

Department for the Aging Bureau Chief Marcia Stein helped Greene and Beard launch their project.

She did it by establishing one of the first public/private partnerships in the country.

For the first several years of operation, meals were delivered on weekends and holidays only. But by 1986, it became obvious the need was much greater.

From the beginning, Citymeals on Wheels has ensured that all its public donations go entirely to the preparation and delivery of meals.

‘Many Wonderful Treasures’

In 1986, Citymeals introduced the Emergency Food Package. It’s a collection of nonperishable staple foods.

They are designed to help sustain meal recipients over the winter months. And make it easier for them to stay in their homes.

Thousands of these boxes were packed at the Brooklyn Armory Terminal during that first year.

Here’s what a Staten Island resident once said about it. “Opening the box and seeing what was in it was like opening a chest and finding many wonderful treasures.”

25,000 Volunteers Helping

Over the next 10 years, the group grew. By 1996, volunteers were delivering about 1 million meals annually to more than 16,000 people.

A Citymeals on Wheels volunteer program was established in 1999. That year more than 300 volunteers delivered meals and smiles to their elderly neighbors.

The volunteers came from schools, corporations, community groups and alumni associations.

Fast forward to 2018, when some 25,000 volunteers donated their time to Citymeals on Wheels.

Nutrition and Options

Each delivered meal accounts for one-third of an elderly person’s daily nutritional requirements.

It includes at least three ounces of protein. Plus three ounces of vegetables and three ounces of grain.

Daily meals are prepared at 30 meal centers across New York City. They use fresh and seasonal ingredients. That way, contents can vary across neighborhoods.

Specialty options include vegetarian, kosher and halal. The group also works with people who have other dietary restrictions.

Food and Friendship

All recipients are 60 or older. Because most live alone, Citymeals on Wheels established a Friendly Visitation program in 2005.

It matches trained volunteers with lonely seniors. They provide much-needed companionship and friendship.

Daily deliveries are accompanied by a “check-in.” The food deliverer makes sure everything is OK with the recipient.

The group gets funds for food through donations that totaled about $17.5 million in 2018.

Nearly 40 years ago, a New York woman wondered how homebound residents with few resources were able to eat.

She could have put that thought to rest. Instead, she started an initiative that has now served 60 million meals.

Robert Boyd
Health4Patriots Editor

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