The de Blasio administration has begun to demand needy senior citizens and homebound New Yorkers re-register for home food deliveries every two weeks, up from once a month, under the pandemic-response program GetFood NYC.
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, which went into effect on July 16.
People requesting the food must call 311 or go online to register.
The number of home-delivered free meals has dropped from 8,775,852 in the week ending July 21 to 7,752,160 the next week, according to city records. The figure has continued to go down to 5,221,090 as of the week ending on Aug. 2, the last week available, data shows.
The transition from four weeks enrollment to two was made because demand was already dropping as the city reopened different business sectors, which translated into fewer people in need, said Joshua Goodman, a spokesperson for the Sanitation Department, whose commissioner, Kathryn Garcia, is overseeing the city’s food response during the pandemic.
The move also has prevented food waste, Goodman added.
GetFood NYC peaked at 9,664,769 meals delivered for the week at the end of May. Some of its clients had previously obtained meals through senior center programs that were shuttered in March.
The number of meals was going down even before the city changed the registration requirement a month and a half later.
All told, the city’s Emergency Food Home Delivery program has delivered 61 million meals, according to Goodman.
Need Still There
Service providers contend that the need for the emergency food has remained steady and will likely go up as federal programs like unemployment benefits are curtailed.
“The need hasn’t gone down and our senior population doesn’t feel comfortable going grocery shopping,” said Michelle Jackson, acting executive director for the Human Services Council, an umbrella group that represents 170 nonprofits in New York City.
People continue to lose their jobs and there has been a national increase in food prices, noted Nick Freudenberg, director of the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute.
“That’s putting a strain on people,” he said. “I’m not reassured that we are over this crisis.”
Some senior center operators have taken to personally registering all of their clients to make sure none of them get accidentally booted off the roster.
“That’s what we are doing,” said Aaron Rooney, clinical director for Isaacs Center, which operates a senior center in the Upper East Side and Harlem.
The organization uses four staff members to register 377 seniors every two weeks via an internal city portal.
“These are master’s-level social workers who are plugging this data into these portals over and over again,” he said, noting the staff has been bogged down by the process, which also entails calling each senior to make sure they want to stay on the list.
The city has spent $387 million and counting to pay approximately 40 food vendors, records show. Taxi drivers who would otherwise be out of work due to low ridership get paid $53 per route of six deliveries to bring food to people in need.
The city has paid a total of $33.6 million to the drivers as of last week, Goodman said.
Falling Through the Cracks
“The goal of our Emergency Food Home Delivery program is to make sure that all New Yorkers in need have enough to eat, and to support our taxi drivers and local businesses while doing so,” said Goodman, noting the city notifies both senior centers and individuals if their enrollment is scheduled to end, and encourage them to re-enroll if they are still in need of emergency food.
People who work with seniors, though, worry many who are not connected to centers are unaware of the two-week registration process or unable to sign back up by themselves.
“There are certainly folks who have fallen through the cracks of this program,” Rooney said.
Some seniors walk to get food at the school-based grab-and-go free meal program. But that program, which has served 47 million meals at around 400 locations, remains in limbo with school set to start Sept. 10. It is expected to remain operational in some locations, according to sources briefed on the plan.
Senior center operators hope they can soon launch their own grab-and-go meals cooked in their kitchens, said Andrea Cianfrani, associate executive director of LiveOnNY, an umbrella group for the city’s 249 senior centers and service providers.
“That’s an important part of the recovery process,” she said.
The pandemic “illuminated” but didn’t cause “very serious problems in our food system,” said CUNY’s Freudenberg.
There were an estimated one million food insecure people in New York City before the city went on pause in early March, according to Garcia’s office. That number has spiked to 2.2 million, officials said, calculating the figure based on unemployment claims and new Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) applications.
“The public goal has to be to make things better, not to go back to a million food-insecure people when we get through this and I don’t see the response so far promising to take us to a better place,” said Freudenberg, who urged federal lawmakers to expand SNAP.
If Congress does not provide additional funding, it will limit the number of people getting home-delivered meals and put a further strain on neighborhood soup kitchens, said Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America.
“And they didn’t have enough resources to meet the demand when things were going well,” he said.
“I always stress that people think we are going to have a Frank Capra happy ending, someone in the end is going to come up with the money and make things right,” he added. “That’s not true. Poor people are going to suffer more.”
The article was published at City Food Delivery Changes Could Be Leaving Many Seniors Hungry