the looming forks

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Advocates for NYC’s seniors have long complained that the city’s funding for meals has been lacking. The Department for the Aging, which is now seeking vendors for its home-delivered meal program, is now being criticized by providers and some advocates for adding an array of new requirements to its program without additional funding.

A January 22nd request for proposals (RFP) from the Department for the Aging (DFTA) for its home-delivered meal program was rated as a high risk to contractors by the Human Services Council, a non-profit trade association for non-governmental social-services entities. The Human Services Council gave the RFP a rating of 75 out of 100, with 100 being the riskiest.

“I think the real concern about this is the funding,” Michelle Jackson, acting executive director of the HSC told City Limits. The contract for the home-delivered meals program would run for three years starting July 1 and would fund meals at a reimbursement rate of $9.58 a meal.

“Providers in the city have clearly communicated to the Department for the Aging in recent years that we are losing money providing this service,” says Ben Thomases, executive director of Queens Community House, a non-profit that has contracted with the city’s home-delivered meals program since 2013, serving community districts that intersect with Forest Hills, Corona and Rego Park.

“It’s surprising and upsetting that DFTA would then release an RFP which imposes unknown additional costs on providers and does not provide new resources,” he says.

The proposed amount in the RFP is an increase over the current reimbursement rate of $8.94. As HSC’s report points out, an analysis by the think tank Mathematica showed the average cost to a provider to produce and deliver a home-delivered meal in an urban area is $11.78.. (The same analysis showed that meals for seniors were generally underfunded – with an average $9.00 per meal paid by agencies across the country.)

About 18,000 homebound seniors across the five boroughs receive a home-delivered meal each weekday, according to the city. The program is open to those who are 60 and older and who can’t access senior center meals.

Much of the concern around funding stems from the fact that DFTA has added more requirements to its program. Many of those items are, in fact, things that advocates have been asking for but they were surprised to see them included without additional funding.

Detailed requirements for meals

The largest new requirement for contractors is that they provide 20 different types of meals each week, with two separate hot-meal choices and two different frozen-meal choices offered each weekday. Advocates had been calling for additional diversity in food offerings both for senior centers and home-delivered meals, but with funding to support it. In 2019 testimony to the City Council, the advocacy group LiveOn NY said, “Providers are required, not to mention eager, to offer menus that are culturally appropriate and nutritious, but do not have adequate funding to do so as this requirement brings a fiscal implication.” The group points out that 50 percent of older New Yorkers are foreign born, according to Center For An Urban Future.

The RFP requires that if 10 percent or more of older adult residents in a community district belong to a particular ethnic group, the providers servings that area offer at least five culturally-appropriate options.

As examples, the city lists Halal, Latin, Polish, Caribbean, Chinese, Korean, Russian and Mediterranean cuisines. One sample meal is “Spanish style chicken, yellow plantains and rice pilaf.” Another is “Beef stir fry, brown rice, Asian blend vegetables.”

Thomases, of Queens Community House, says this requirement doesn’t take into account who is signing up for meals, just who lives in a neighborhood.

“The RFP requires us to provide multiple other options without regard for the demand in our community,” he says, “Just because 10 percent of a certain community lives in your neighborhood doesn’t necessarily mean that your case management and home-delivery meals caseload is going to reflect that.” The RFP divides the city’s 59 community districts into clusters of one to five zones so that each area has its own contract between DFTA and a non-profit meal provider. But DFTA, in an addendum to the RFP, says that if 10 percent of people of a certain ethnicity belong to one community district, culturally specific food would have to be offered to the entire contracted area. Kosher meal options are also required throughout the city,per the RFP.

According to HSC’s report on the RFP, “contractors are expected to offer several cuisines, including cultural foods, in different meal formats,” as well as adhere to other requirements, like a quota for local and sustainably-sourced food, language assistance to persons with limited English proficiency, and providing social interaction for isolated seniors.

HSC’s report says, “The inadequate funding makes it difficult to reach these program goals, especially considering the cost of purchasing diverse foods, cooking, meal packaging, storing, and delivery.” The report calls the funding discrepancy “stark” and says only a significant increase of funding would make the RFP less risky.

In an e-mail to City Limits, Councilwoman Margaret Chin, chair of the Committee on Aging, said, “The new home-delivered meals RFP should present an opportunity to expand access to this life-saving program to serve our city’s most vulnerable seniors — not roll it back. Its high-risk score of 75 percent signifies the continued work we need to do to ensure that the home-delivered meal program is sustainable and supported.”

The RFP is the second from DFTA that HSC has rated. The previous, an RFP for Caregiver Services, was initially rated a 68 out of a possible 100, but its risk rating was lowered to 60 out of 100 once several million dollars of additional funding was added by the city to allay the concerns of contractors.

Taste tests and entry barriers

The Request For Proposals also requires that the non-profit bidders implement a management structure laid out by DFTA if they want to secure a bid. Contractors would need to have a “governance structure” with at least one member with a background in accounting, one with a background in aging services, an attorney, and an older adult who has been enrolled in an aging services program. It requires that this governing body have an active role in recruitment of seniors into the program and that they have approval over the non-profit’s operating budget.

Jackson of HSC called the requirements “oddly specific,” and a request she hadn’t seen the city make earlier. “A city contract shouldn’t govern who is on a board of a non-profit,” she says.

Jackson also questioned a requirement for “taste tests” conducted by contractors and DFTA to determine the quality of food as this metric is based on individual preference.

“There’s an element of subjectivity built in,” she says.

Providers are concerned that the lack of up-front payment outlined in the RFP would lock out smaller non-profits.

The RFP requires the use of a fleet of vehicles with temperature control to handle frozen and chilled meals but doesn’t provide funding up front to rent or purchase the fleet. And there are up front costs to buy kitchen equipment needed to prepare and package the meals.

It’s possible that some smaller non-profits may not bid or may not qualify for the contract. It’s also likely that many non-profits will take the contract despite the financial risks, Jackson says. “They already provide these services and they don’t want to let down a community,” she says.

According to public records there are 17 providers for DFTA’s home-delivered meals program, including larger organizations like Catholic Charities, which is part of a national network of non-profits, as well as mid-size organizations like Queens Community House and JASA, and smaller, neighborhood based organizations like Ridgewood Bushwick Home Delivered Meals.

“Non-profits find it very difficult to walk away from providing a service they know their community needs”, Thomases says. Ultimately, Thomases says, he is concerned that non-profit serving seniors, many of which rely on government contracts, will hover closer to bankruptcy if rates remain well below the cost per meal estimated by outside analysts.

Thomases points to the 2015 bankruptcy of FEGS (Federation Guidance and Employment Service), one of the city’s largest social service providers. The Human Services Council released a report in the wake of the FEGS collapse criticizing government repayment rates for making it difficult for non-profits to operate, although critics have suggested management issues at FEGS also played a role. Another audit of New York City non-profits after the FEGS bankruptcy found that 10 percent of NYC non-profits were unable to pay debts owed and 40 percent had no cash reserves.

DFTA suggests teaming up

In a statement to City Limits, the Department for the Aging pointed to provisions in the RFP that allow non-profits to combine capacity for the bid, saying, “The RFP supports providers to critically evaluate their organizational capabilities and leverage resources while concurrently prioritizing the delivery of nutritious meals to vulnerable older New Yorkers.”

In a section of the RFP titled “Partnering For Excellence,” DFTA suggested that bidders pair with other non-profit or for-profit providers who have strengths in, for instance, social support or who have experience delivering a certain cultural cuisine. DFTA’s statement urged providers to submit questions to the agency’s contact person. In a later clarification, DFTA said, “Where the word ‘partnership’ is written, it refers to subcontracting.”

In an addendum to the RFP DFTA writes, “the judicious use of subcontractors can lead to a division of labor that would make the process run smoothly.” DFTA says in the document that it is in discussions with the Office of Management and Budget about the per meal rate.

Bids for the contract were initially due March 3rd, but DFTA extended that date to April 8th in an addendum. The contracts begin July 1 and run for three years, with the option to renew for another three years. The RFP notes that the per meal reimbursement rate could be raised before contracts are finalized.

“My hope is that the city will take a look at this RFP and really reconsider whether they want this essential service to go out to contract under circumstances like this,” Thomases says.

The RFP for Home-Delivered Meals could be a prelude to inevitable confrontations over the city’s budget for senior center meals, as well as an RFP for senior center meals due in the fall. An audit by the State Comptroller’s office in 2018 found that DFTA was reimbursing senior centers unevenly. A letter from the Comptroller’s office in November indicated DFTA hadn’t yet implemented several recommendations for senior center meals, including reviewing food costs.

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