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As the city’s Department for the Aging (DFTA) looks to consolidate its Meals on Wheels delivery program for homebound seniors in the Bronx, 10 of the borough’s 12 nonprofit service providers plan to boycott the agency’s program. While many seniors are panicked that the quality of food might suffer, providers have another concern: the loss of 60 full time jobs.

“This is the equivalent of coal in your stocking,” said Charlie Rosen, executive director of the Gloria Wise Community Center, a group that’s served hot meals to homebound elderly in Co-op City for the last 30 years. “This is an assault on the most frail, most fragile…. It’s a disaster.”

On December 10, DFTA officials put out an RFP seeking to cut the Bronx’s 17 contracts with Meals on Wheels providers down to three. The agency, which coordinates an estimated 20,000 meals a day throughout the city on a roughly $235 million a year budget, is now looking for bids from providers who can serve roughly 100,000 meals a year in three separate sections of the Bronx at the slender rate of $4 per meal, as opposed to the current rate of $6.

That’s a lofty benchmark that smaller, community-oriented nonprofits might not be able to meet. Bigger, out-of-state food giants are expected to win the contracts.

“Our biggest concern is the nonprofits and the jobs,” DFTA Commissioner Edwin Mendez-Santiago told City Limits. “But we have to cut our costs and prepare for increasing demographics.”

Over the last 10 years, Santiago says the city’s population of seniors age 85 and older has increased by 19 percent; over the next decade, it will likely continue to rise at even higher rates. The agency, he says, won’t be able to meet new clients’ needs without streamlining contracts and operations.

There’s also the hot-button issue of frozen food. Right now, all dishes served to seniors are hot, but the new contract calls for a 60/40 split of hot to frozen meals. Many advocates gripe that purchasing frozen meals from out-of-state bidders does not support the local economy. More important, they say, an in-person delivery of hot food is often the only human contact homebound seniors get—an incalculable cost.

After reviewing the issue with his staff, Santiago says, the agency found many seniors would prefer the independence and convenience of frozen meals — which he claims may actually taste better — to the hot dishes schlepped around the city daily.

The advocates aren’t convinced. They fear shifting an already working program could develop long-term problems for DFTA. “This is like Humpy Dumpty,” said Bobbie Sackman, director of public policy for the Council of Senior Centers and Services. “Once it breaks, you can’t put all the pieces back together again.”

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