By Molly Sugarman
Imagine that you have $10.68 cents to prepare and deliver a healthy, religiously and culturally appropriate meal to a homebound person.
That includes shopping for the ingredients, prepping and preparing the food, making sure you are delivering the right meal to the right person, and then driving to their home to deliver it. You’ll get another $.10 per meal for “indirect” costs, such as electricity, fuel, vans, drivers, and the infrastructure to manage it all.
Nonprofits serving homebound seniors are doing just that: delivering thousands of meals each day for a price that doesn’t match their costs, according to Councilmember Gale Brewer.
On Saturday, to highlight the need for more money for senior food programs, Brewer joined Jeremy Kaplan, executive director of Encore Community Services, to deliver meals to homebound seniors living in six Upper West Side buildings. Encore is one of many nonprofits serving seniors in Manhattan.
The demand for home-delivered meals is increasing as the number of seniors increases, but the funding isn’t rising at the same rate. People aged 60+ make up almost 21% of the city’s population, according to the Annual Plan Summary 2021- 2022 of the city’s Department for the Aging (DFTA) and will continue to do so as the population increases. By 2030, seniors will outnumber the under-18 population by a factor of 12, Brewer noted. That’s 12 seniors for every minor.
Homebound meal delivery provides more than nutrition, as Brewer found out during her deliveries. The seniors like to chat with the person delivering the meal, providing socialization. Moreover, the delivery person can note problems in the senior’s living conditions and notify a case manager. “For some, the volunteer delivering the meal is the only person the homebound senior sees,” Kaplan said.
For each of the meals it delivers, Encore receives $10.68, up from $9.58 last year, and rising to $11.78 in July, thanks to the advocacy of four borough presidents, including Brewer, when she was Manhattan Borough President last year.
As noted, DFTA also pays $.10 per meal for indirect costs, but it is not enough, Brewer said. For example, Encore needs $.18 per meal for indirect costs, she explained. Without it, they are losing more than $1 million each year.
“Right now, we get the funds to provide one meal a day,” Kaplan said. “In most cases, we are the only source of food [the seniors] have. We reach a finite number of people and even those aren’t getting enough food. Thousands more need meals and aren’t being reached.”
Encore now serves a half-million meals per year, 1,200 to 1,500 per day, Kaplan said. If funded, they could increase that to a million meals per year. That’s the need, Kaplan said, which isn’t being met.
And those half-million meals currently served are only possible because he has thousands of volunteers augmenting his small staff and because the staff is paid a subpar wage. “We have an obligation to take care of those who took care of us,” he said. “We need more of an investment.”
If senior services were funded adequately, Brewer said, seniors could get more than one meal a day, but the amount of money allocated to the Department for the Aging (DFTA) is “terrible,” she said. Less than 0.5% of the city’s budget is allocated for more than 21% of the population, she added.
Not only are more meals needed for homebound seniors, but also more senior centers and opportunities for cultural and social activities, Brewer said. Some of these needs are being met by grassroots effort, such as Bloomingdale Aging in Place, and smaller groups that have formed at Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (NORCs), such as Lincoln Towers.
Ramping up senior services and centers is a tough call, Kaplan said, due to underpaid staff. Two social workers in Encore’s Senior Center see 2,500 to 3,000 people each year — helping with finances, health care, and crisis management.
“I can’t pay a social worker with a Master’s more than $50,000,” Kaplan said. “They can go to Starbucks and make more. We are really in a crisis situation in human services in New York City because we are not able to pay a living wage.”
“Senior issues are always a focus of mine,” Brewer said. “I will continue to advocate for a larger DFTA budget.”
To help seniors find their way through the web of agencies and organizations that provide services, Brewer is also compiling a booklet of every senior program in District 6. She and Community Board 7 each have a Senior Task Force as well.
“The budget is still in flux,” she said. “Write to the mayor and the Council to say we need more money!”
Photographs courtesy of Gale Brewer’s office.