Deep concerns about the de Blasio administration’s communication with senior centers and operation of food programs during the pandemic combined with persistent worries about a senior meals contract at a Tuesday City Council hearing.
Providers expressed frustration with the Department For The Aging (DFTA) and the mayor’s office, who they say made abrupt changes with little input from the aging services sector.
That criticism encompassed a contract for home-delivered meals that providers say is dangerously underfunded, the city’s use of a city-run program to handle senior meal delivery rather than providers familiar with the program, and lack of communication around the closing of senior centers in the early days of the crisis, as well as their eventual reopening.
Bidding delay sought
As the hearing began, Aging Committee Chair Margaret Chin questioned the DFTA’s timeline for a request for proposals (RFP) for home-delivered meals. Prior to the pandemic, about 17,000 homebound seniors across the five boroughs were receiving home-delivered meals each weekday, a number that went up 10 percent after COVID. The RFP in question would fund meals at $9.58 a meal, well below the $11.78 per meal cost to providers calculated by research firm Mathematica.
Bids were previously due March 3rd, but were delayed until June 24, the day after Tuesday’s hearing.
Chin and advocates called for the RFP to be delayed so that providers do not have to put together bids while scrambling to deal with COVID. She suggested delaying the bid to September.
In a prepared response, DFTA Chief Commercial Officer Erkan Solak told Chin that they had received 60 bids for 22 awards in the contract “following an extraordinary 16 additional weeks” of open bidding. DFTA said the bids would close June 24 as planned.
DFTA said they had received $26 million in federal coronavirus relief, which Chin pressed the agency to apply to its food budget.
Katelyn Andrews, Director of Public Policy at LiveOn NY, said that food is the number one issue that the organization is hearing about from seniors. “Senior centers could be a solution and create culturally competent meals,” Andrews said. “Without adequate funding, that’s untenable in the current state.”
She criticized the aforementioned Home-Delivered Meals RFP for and being inadequately funded and failing to provide hazard pay for drivers. LiveOn is calling for the city to fund Home-Delivered Meals at $26.2 million in the upcoming budget.
GetFood gets criticism
DFTA’s use of a city-run emergency food program called GetFood NYC for some new Home-Delivered Meals clients was also a point of criticism.
DFTA says only providers who reached their contracted capacity were asked to refer clients to GetFood NYC, although LiveOn and providers who spoke with City Limits say they would have preferred additional funding to take on some of the new clients.
In her testimony, Andrews said that providers were “forced to navigate a labyrinth of new systems” like GetFood, without being asked to provide solutions themselves. GetFood has been criticized for failing to deliver food because of outdated addresses, and delivering meals of questionable nutritional quality.
Carlyn Cowen, Chief Policy and Public Affairs officer with the Chinese Planning Council, said the Get Food NYC program exposed trust issues between government and the Asian American seniors that CPC serves.
Cowen testified that seniors were less likely to open the door for city workers with GetFood because of fears of ICE.
“Our seniors were forced to choose between the fear of deportation and not going hungry,” Cowen said.
They said CPC had received reports of seniors not receiving meals after the Get Food NYC transition began, and the group had to crowdfund food for some seniors.
“We heard of seniors receiving meals that were basically made up of crackers, apple sauce, juice, and other things that were just not nutritionally appropriate,” Cowen testified.
An abrupt closure
Andrews also took issue with the abrupt closing of senior centers on March 15th, saying most senior center staff found out during the mayor’s press conference that day and had to scramble to accommodate a “Grab and Go” strategy that the city asked them to use. The city’s senior meals are now all home-delivered.
“This is one of many examples as to how the lack of communication and the abrupt nature of such announcements only continued in the weeks that followed,” Andrews said.
The mayor’s press conference was on a Friday afternoon, and many seniors whom CPC serves had planned to come in for food the next Monday, Cowen said.
Chin, along with Councilmember Ben Kallos, asked whether senior centers would soon be opened as cooling centers, given that temperatures are beginning to rise. DFTA Chief Finance Officer Jose Mercado said they were in the process of asking senior centers how much it would cost for them to open as cooling centers, and are still receiving responses.
Bruising budget looms
The hearing comes as aging services providers are looking to avoid what could be a grim budget season, due to Covid funding shortfalls.
In a June 15 letter signed by over 100 organizations that serve seniors, providers asked that the mayor add $10 million of funding to senior centers, fund home-delivered meals at $26.2 million and restore all funding to senior services for fiscal year 2021.
The human-services sector is worried about more than just aging services. Also at Tuesday’s hearing, youth service providers expressed concern over the cancelled Summer Youth Employment Program, which employs teenagers from lower-income families each year but was scrapped in April, ostensibly for safety reasons.