By Beth Krietsch
For many elderly New Yorkers, eating well can prove to be a vexing challenge as they simultaneously come to face other aging-related obstacles like limited mobility, shrinking support networks, and fixed incomes.
According to data from the NYC Center for Economic Opportunity, nearly 20 percent of New York City adults above the age of 65 live in poverty. Many of them see no regular income beyond Social Security, and one in ten lives in a household with insufficient food.
When struggling financially, some seniors find themselves in the tough position of choosing between food, health care, and rental costs. In these situations, food security can become an issue.
“On a fixed income, it’s very difficult to be able to afford everything, especially in New York,” says Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America.
Meanwhile, many New York City seniors who are eligible for food assistance do not receive it. In recent years, the city’s Human Resources Administration, Department for the Aging (DFTA) and the Food Bank for New York City have collaborated to close this gap by identifying seniors who are eligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits but not receiving them. They do so through a computer match with the city’s Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption program.
In the 2016 fiscal year, 308,890 senior New York CIty residents received monthly SNAP benefits. And since 2012,overall senior SNAP enrollment has increased 20 percent.
Besides working towards increasing SNAP enrollment, DFTA works behind the scenes in a number of other ways to combat food insecurity among NYC’s aging populations. According to a DFTA spokesperson, they fund home delivered meals each weekday for approximately 18,000 elderly New Yorkers who lack support, have trouble leaving home, or are unable to prepare food. To help those in need with weekend, holiday, and emergency meals, DFTA partners with Citymeals on Wheels.
Senior centers are a huge asset in helping aging New Yorkers get the food they need to stay healthy. DFTA provides a majority of the funding for more than 250 senior centers that provide hot, nutritious, and culturally diverse meals for thousands of adults age 60 and over, free of charge. In the 2016 fiscal year, DFTA-funded senior centers served more than 7 million meals to elderly New Yorkers, a DFTA spokesperson shared.
DFTA also hosts nutrition-education workshops and distributed $848,000 worth of farmers market coupon booklets through senior centers and other programs last year.
“We sometimes encounter seniors who may be used to eating a certain way over time,” a spokesperson from the NYC Department for the Aging said. “We work to educate them about healthier options and about how they can afford nutritious, fresh food while living on a limited income.”
Working primarily at four DFTA-funded senior centers, New York City-based nonprofit Bronxworks provides quality food for aging city residents. Founded in 1972, Bronxworks fights food insecurity by serving nutritious, culturally-appropriate hot meals to hundreds of seniors on weekdays and select weekends. Recent menu items at Bronxworks senior centers have included maple quinoa-oatmeal porridge, stewed cod with eggplant, and oven-fried chicken wings.
The nonprofit also provides seniors with pantry bags of nutritionally balanced foods and hosts nutrition and health promotion workshops.
Healthy Meals, Healthy Lives
One New York City organization at the forefront of innovation in helping individuals maintain food security and proper nutrition in their older years is Lenox Hill Neighborhood House. The 123-year-old settlement house follows a farm-to-institution model that serves about 350,000 fresh, healthy, and locally sourced meals to low-income seniors each year at two senior centers and a homeless shelter.
Free for adults above the age of 60, the meals are cooked with fresh, local produce when possible, local and organic meat, sustainably sourced fish, and locally grown grains. Nearly all breakfasts are vegetarian, along with around 30 percent of lunches and dinners.
A typical breakfast plate may be filled with fresh fruit, a hard-boiled egg, Greek yogurt, and a whole wheat mini bagel. For lunch, seniors can sink their forks into North American dogfish with black bean sauce served alongside assorted fresh vegetables and bulgur. For dinner, they might see lentil and carrot turnip stew, sauteed green beans, and barley.
A blackboard lists the local items that will be served for the week, providing seniors with a peek at the foods that will appear on their plates in the coming days. It’s a passive way of engaging the seniors to think about their food in a deeper way.
Lenox Hill also invites seniors to weekly culinary and nutrition workshops on topics like weight maintenance and nutrition for heart health.
But the organization hasn’t always placed such an emphasis on serving healthy meals to its seniors. Much of the Lenox Hill’s menu shift started in late 2011 when it hired chef Lynn Loflin, who owns an organic farm in the Catskills and previously owned a Manhattan restaurant. Over the course of a few years, Loflin led the transition to fresh and local ingredients, smaller meat portions, and more plant-based and fully-vegetarian meals. A DFTA grant for “innovative” programming and nutrition services helped facilitate the shift.
Of course, many seniors are set in their ways and had feedback to share after seeing a change in the menus they had grown accustomed to. Loflin and her peers spoke with the seniors about the changes and considered their feedback, as they continue to do today. When many seniors were unhappy about shrinking meat portions, Loflin explained the reason behind the change—a move towards sourcing healthier, higher-quality meats.
“That resonates with some people, but it doesn’t resonate with everyone,” Loflin says. “We serve more of other things so hopefully it doesn’t always feel like something is taken away.”
In May 2016, Loflin switched roles and now oversees the Teaching Kitchen at Lenox HIll Neighborhood House. In the tradition of the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House model, she provides training and technical assistance to help nonprofits and institutional food programs move towards serving fresh, healthy, and local foods to their low-income clients without raising costs.
The three-day Teaching Kitchen curriculum helps chefs, nonprofit food service program directors, and kitchen staff assess their programs and then implement specific steps to increase access to fresh, healthy, and local food.
“It’s a how-to, hands-on, nuts and bolts foodservice business course in how to rearrange the cost of the items on your plate, how to source local and fresh ingredients, and how to train your staff to do this,” Loflin says. “The emphasis is on very slow incremental change.”
With changes come barriers, and staff and kitchens need time to adapt to new cooking and storage processes once they transition to the fresh and local model. Making just a few changes each quarter is a more gentle progression into a better way of eating—one that tends to be easier on both the kitchen staff and the seniors who are doing the eating.
“It really has to be done reasonably slowly to be sustainable and to build on itself,” Loflin explains. “There’s an enormous amount of staff development that has to be done around changing just from frozen broccoli to fresh broccoli.”
These efforts by DFTA, Lenox Hill, Bronxworks and other organizations are all a step in the right direction, provided much needed nutrients to those in need. But with research showing that one in seven older adults in the U.S. are sometimes anxious about having enough to eat, a great deal of work remains to ensure that New York City’s seniors have access to a sufficient supply of safe and nutritious foods.
Photo credit: Philip Mauro