NYC Food Policy Center Interview with Beth Shapiro, Executive Director, Citymeals on Wheels

by Alexina Cather, MPH

Beth Shapiro is the Executive Director of Citymeals on Wheels, a public/private partnership with the New York city Department for the Aging (DFTA). Citymeals on Wheels funds the delivery of more than 3 million meals a year to elderly residents in New York City, filling in on occasions, such as weekends and holidays, when government programs don’t deliver. Interview Questions

Food Policy Center (FPC): Before working at Citymeals on Wheels, you worked as an advertising and marketing executive. What inspired you to switch sectors and launch a career fighting hunger amongst seniors in New York City?

Beth Shapiro (BS): I wanted to bring my business skills into the nonprofit sector and do something that would have a positive impact on the city that had become my home. But elder hunger spoke to me on a deeply personal level too. My grandparents, who lived in Brooklyn for many years, were an important part of my childhood, and I simply couldn’t imagine one of them going hungry. Thankfully, they could count on our tight-knit family to look out for them as they got older, but that’s simply not the case for the homebound elderly Citymeals serves. They’ve outlived family and friends, and sometimes their own children. There are many older New Yorkers who, luckily, can depend on a personal support network as they age, but for those who can’t, Citymeals is there.

FPC: The fastest growing segment of the population in New York City is seniors. There are 1.4 million New Yorkers who are currently aged 60 or older. By 2040 that number is projected to grow by 40 percent. How does Citymeals on Wheels plan to meet this growing demand? Are you working on any initiatives with the Department for the Aging to ensure that our growing senior population has access to nutritious food?

BS: By 2030, for the first time in history, we expect to have more seniors than children. It is a massive shift in the city’s age demographic.

There are so many reasons for older people to live here – access to transportation, some of the best medical facilities in the world, cultural opportunities, and so much to keep older people’s minds and bodies engaged. But there are real challenges too, including the high cost of living and lack of affordable housing. Among the people we serve, the average age is 85 and the majority are living on a fixed income, at or below the poverty level. That means trying to survive on less than $19,000 a year, making impossible choices among food, medication and paying rent.

People are savvier now about how food impacts health. And the city is more diverse than ever. We need to be able to cater to that awareness and diversity and provide meals a wide variety of older people want to eat, including those with differing medical and dietary needs. Providing culturally relevant, medically adapted, gluten-free and vegetarian food is a challenge we need to answer.

We’re working with the Department for the Aging to see how we can maximize and build on the existing meal preparation and delivery system. We partner with 30 meal centers around the city. We all work together for cost efficiencies and best practices. If a meal center on the Upper East Side has a kitchen that is fully utilized during regular operations but could bring in a second shift to prepare more meals and expand their capacity, we help support that and grow. We all have information we need to communicate and put into place in order to maximize resources and efficiency. By unifying best practices, exploring group purchasing and further leveraging the network as a whole, we could decrease expenses and increase nutritional services for the city’s senior population.

FPC: Hunger and health are inextricably linked. Food insecurity among senior citizens is associated with an increased risk for conditions including diabetes, high blood pressure, and asthma. How is Citymeals on Wheels ensuring that our elderly population is not only well fed but also well nourished?

BS: All of our meals meet federal nutritional guidelines. But we know that 14 percent of our meal recipients are living on just the one meal we deliver each day. For these people, who we know are most at risk for malnutrition, our Mobile Food Pantry provides additional food. Addressing this kind of food insecurity is a focus for us.

We also need to make sure we’re providing food that people can and will eat. We know that oral health issues – like poorly fitting dentures – can make it impossible for our meal recipients to eat certain foods.  We’ve done an oral health study that looks at what is being put on the plate and what people can eat. We are now taking that a step further, and we’re chopping and puréeing some of the food for those who need it. If there’s something on the plate on any given day that someone can’t eat, we won’t be meeting that person’s nutritional needs.

We also work to nourish body and soul. There is a growing understanding about the negative effects of social isolation and loneliness on health. We’re trying to address that need among the homebound elderly through or daily meal delivery – which is brought to the door by a corps of staff and volunteers who are acquainted with our recipients and provide a warm daily check-in. We also have a robust Friendly Visiting program that pairs a volunteer with a meal recipient for a weekly visit in the meal recipient’s home. These are often intergenerational relationship that last for years and are meaningful for both the volunteer and the recipient. We also have a letter-writing program and a senior chat program, for people who enjoy a regular correspondence or conversation. Combating social isolation is just as important as nutrition.

FPC: Senior citizens have often been referred to as the “hidden hungry.” Even though senior hunger exists in every community across the country, it’s one of America’s best-kept secrets. Why has this issue failed to capture more attention?

BS: Part of the issue is our failure to talk about it. When was the last time you heard an elected leader give a speech about elder issues that got lots of attention? We live in a society that is always talking and thinking about young people, the next generation, and it becomes really easy to forget the generations that came before, those who built our city and our country.

It’s also hard to put a face to elder hunger. Our meal recipients are not the people you see in lines for soup kitchens – they are too frail to get out and shop for themselves or to visit a pantry for additional food. Or perhaps you see an elderly person at the corner bodega and think they’re okay because they’re getting out. But the reality could be that they are buying inexpensive, unhealthy food because that’s all they can afford and all they can access. Or they’re buying food that needs to last until the end of the month. We just don’t know.

And for many of us, aging is scary. We don’t want to think about it and we try to put it out of our minds. The reality of disabilities is, whether they are large or small, our function when we reach 60,. 70. 80 or beyond  won’t be what it was in our 30s, 40s or 50s. It’s a hard topic to think about. But I hear incredible stories from our meal recipients, who have lived rich lives and are continuing to live independently in the homes and communities where they want to be. We serve more than 200 centenarians, and heir persistence and positivity serves as a reminder that we can all take a more thoughtful approach to aging instead of living in fear of it.

FPC: Under your leadership, Citymeals on Wheels launched Chefs Deliver, a program that takes some of the city’s best chefs out of their kitchens to deliver restaurant-quality meals to their frail, aged neighbors. What role do you think NYC chefs should play in addressing food access, food security and hunger in their city? Do they have a responsibility to improve the food system beyond the plates served within the walls of their restaurants?

BS: Yes, and they’re doing it. Citymeals was founded by the restaurant critic Gael Greene and renowned chef and cookbook author James Beard, two people whose lives revolved around food.  They were appalled that in a city with so much, anyone could go hungry. Chefs Deliver is a continuation of that spirit of generosity on which Citymeals was founded. It’s an opportunity too for the chefs to make an impact in the neighborhoods where their restaurants are located. Sometimes, a frail aged neighbor is just a few doors down from a renowned restaurant, so the chef is able to see that hunger – and those in need – can live anywhere. I can’t think of any chef I know or Citymeals has worked with who doesn’t feel a responsibility to serve their community beyond the walls of their restaurant. We have found this community to be among the most generous and caring in our city.

FPC: You have a great section on your website that highlights profiles of individual meal recipients. In your time at Citymeals on Wheels you surely have encountered thousands of these stories first hand. Are there any particular individuals you will always remember?

BS: The most meaningful part of my job is to get to meet the older New Yorkers we nourish. The impact they’ve have on me has been immense. I talk frequently about my very first meal delivery, because it has shaped my whole tenure here and brought real meaning to my job. The first person I delivered to was a woman named Mamie. She lived in a cramped, poorly ventilated apartment in Brooklyn. It was just around the corner from where my dad grew up.

Her shoes were held together with duct tape. She’d lost her husband but shared incredible memories of their good times together. And when I asked if we could take her photo, she just came alive and posed for the shot with the biggest smile. Despite her circumstances, Mamie wasn’t asking for anything. A simple meal and a little conversation was all it took to change her whole day. I think that’s true for many of the people we serve.

After I’d been at Citymeals for several years, I was working on our annual report and  interviewing a woman named Lily. I spent a couple of hours listening to the life story of this incredible woman, who was the only member of her family to survive the Holocaust. The depth of detail that she shared was very moving and difficult for me. When I talked about using her story in our annual report, I explained that we would use only her first name in order to protect her privacy, as we do with all meal recipients. And she teared up and begged me to include both her first and last names in the hope that she might find family she never located after the Holocaust. Stories likes hers drive me to fight for the dignity of older New Yorkers.

FPC: Are there unique challenges to feeding the elderly community in New York City that may differ from fighting senior hunger in another city or area of America? Are there unique strengths we can play to here in New York City to solve senior hunger?

BS: The challenge and advantage is that New York is a walking city. For older people, that can be very challenging if they develop mobility issues, if they live in a walk-up apartment, or as their neighborhoods change and shops they relied on are no longer close by. It can be equally complex for us to deliver meals – many of our routes are done on foot with handcarts, and we have to deal with congestion, traffic, walk-up buildings, and buildings with broken buzzers, to name a few of the challenges. The logistics of delivering more than 18,000 meals in five boroughs every day is tremendous. It requires ordinary people deciding to get involved. That’s the principle Citymeals was founded on: neighbors looking out for neighbors. And for those who don’t have time but want to give, they know where their gift is going because Citymeals guarantees that every dollar we raise from the general public goes directly to the preparation and delivery of meals.

FPC: Looking ahead, what is one food policy change you’d like to see implemented by the government at the city level to help address overall hunger in New York City?

BS: The simple answer is: We need far more support and financial investment in meal programs for older New Yorkers. Currently, New York State is spending 40 percent less per older New Yorker than it did in 2000. You can’t have funding remain flat while the population in need is growing rapidly. I’d like to see the city’s budget address that. We estimate another 15,000 vulnerable elderly could benefit from regular meal deliveries, but without increased support from the City’s aging services, it’s nearly impossible to reach those people.

FPC: Only 45 percent of eligible seniors are enrolled and receiving SNAP benefits (formerly Food Stamps) as compared to 88 percent of eligible, non-elderly adults. You have made it a priority to help hundreds of eligible senior recipients access SNAP benefits. What are your strategies for increasing or incentivizing enrollment? What are the barriers?

BS: Because of underinvestment in aging services, seniors are one of the most underserved populations in our country. We need case managers on the ground, people who can go into a senior’s home – which is critical for those who are homebound – and talk them through the services and resources. But there are cultural barriers too. Many elderly people are ashamed of receiving benefits or don’t think they deserve them. Some are immigrants who are too afraid to get benefits because of fears of deportation. Others might not have access to a computer or be unable to complete an online process.

FPC: During your tenure, Citymeals on Wheels has experienced a 28 percent increase in its number of volunteers and a 61.5 percent increase in volunteer hours. What has been the key to getting more New Yorkers involved in your mission? Other than volunteering, what actions or changes should we all be taking or making to help create a more equitable and sustainable food system?

BS: We are extremely proud of those numbers – the tens of thousands of volunteers who help us every year. Last year, about 25,000 volunteers gave 80,000 hours of their time to move our mission forward. The easiest way for someone to understand the importance of Citymeals and what we do is to go on a meal delivery. Just an hour or two will help you understand both our impact and the need that exists. For many people, a one-time volunteer experience turns into ongoing commitment – whether it’s volunteering every Saturday or every Christmas or every year with their company. We see people wanting to deliver to the same meal recipients over and over because of the bonds that are formed. It’s truly heartwarming. We couldn’t fulfill our mission every day without the generosity of everyday New Yorkers.

On a systems level, I think we all need to make smart decisions about what we’re eating, what we’re buying and to be more conscious of others as well. It is unfortunate that often healthier, organic food is more costly. When you’re talking about a city that’s already expensive and people living on a fixed income, the access to healthy alternatives can be challenging.

FPC: What new and exciting projects, initiatives or events are you most looking forward to in 2019?

BS: We’re excited to expand the work we do from our warehouse in the Bronx. We officially opened the Joan & Bob Tisch Emergency Meal Distribution Center at the end of last year. It’s a 25,000 square-foot multipurpose facility that really has prepared us for the future. Now we have 30,000 shelf-stable meals on hand at all times, in addition to 55,000 non-perishable meals ready for emergencies. We also have the capacity to have up to 300 volunteers working there at one time, which is great for our expanding corporate volunteer initiatives.

We’ll also be working to expand our annual fundraising. Our biggest challenge is raising more money and fulfilling the growing needs of this city. We are looking at ways to raise more than ever through our three signature events, including our longest-running event, the 34th Annual Chefs’ Tribute to Citymeals, which takes place on June 10th this year. We take over Rockefeller Center with 40 or so chefs from around the world, who generously donate their time and teams to cook for more than 1,000 guests. Even today, nearly four decades after our founding, we continue to stand by our promise that 100 percent of all donations from the general public go to meal preparation and delivery.


Grew up in: Charlotte, North Carolina

City or town you call home: Pleasantville, New York

Job title: Executive Director of Citymeals on Wheels

Background and education: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

One word you would use to describe our food system: Challenged

Your food policy hero: Tom Colicchio

Your breakfast this morning: Egg white omelet with lox, onions and mushrooms

Favorite food: Ice cream

Favorite last meal: French fries and a chocolate ice-cream soda

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