Thirty-five years ago on Christmas Day, 6,000 frail homebound elderly New Yorkers received an unexpected knock at the door. It wasn’t Santa, but it might as well have been.
It was a meal deliverer bringing them Christmas dinner.
Days before Thanksgiving 1981, Gael Greene, the New York magazine restaurant critic, read a news story reporting that aging New Yorkers would not receive city-funded meal deliveries over the long holiday weekend. Outraged that in a city of such plenty, thousands of frail, lonely seniors would go days without food, she made a series of phone calls, rallying her friends in the food world, including the late Chef James Beard. Together, they raised $35,000. Greene contacted the city agency responsible for senior services and offered the money on one condition: that 100 percent of the money go to fund meals. The agency turned the funds into Christmas meals and Citymeals on Wheels was born.
Today, 54 million meals later, Citymeals continues to fund the preparation and delivery of more than two million weekend, holiday and emergency meals for more than 18,400 frail seniors every year. All are chronically disabled by conditions such as vision loss, diabetes, mental disability, arthritis and heart disease while 35 percent live on less than $11,880 a year. The majority are over the age of 82; more than 200 have lived a century or more. For many, the meal deliverer is the only person they see all day.
Since 1981, much has changed. Citymeals has built a strong public-private partnership with the NYC Department for the Aging and with local community organizations all around the city, ensuring that our most vulnerable citizens have something to eat 365 days a year and in times of emergency like during snowstorms, blackouts or gas outages. Our robust volunteer programs keep meal recipients connected to to the world helping to combat, isolation and loneliness year round.
But what hasn’t changed are the people we serve. The need is real. Their need is hidden. Their numbers are growing.
The average cost for Citymeals to fund the preparation and delivery of one weekend meal for a homebound older New Yorker is $7.38. But that seven bucks is so much more than a meal. The meal deliverers are trained to recognize early signs of dementia and elder abuse. They let us know when a recipient experiences weight loss or change in behavior. They are a friendly presence, a safety net, that provides a vital sense of security to frail seniors who live with the fear that they might fall and be undiscovered for days.
As the aging population explodes, neither public nor private support for programs for the elderly is keeping up with the need. Here in New York, the problem is acute; by 2030, seniors will outnumber children for the first time ever.
The people Citymeals serves – the once sturdy construction workers, former policemen, poets, nurses, bankers, lawyers, and teachers – built this city and made it strong. None of us would be here without them. Here in this vast city, we must never allow them to feel invisible or forgotten, hungry or alone.
Our co-founder Gael Greene says it best, “Food and friendship should never be a luxury.”
Beth Shapiro has been Executive Director of Citymeals on Wheels since September 2011. In this time, the numbers of homebound elderly nourished and meals served throughout all five boroughs have both increased by ten percent. A graduate of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Shapiro worked as a marketing and advertising executive prior to joining Citymeals.