Credit: Bill Moore photo

The outbreak of COVID-19 reveals challenges seniors in need face while accessing quality food. On May 20, 2020, New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams together wrote a letter to COVID-19 Food Czar and New York City Department of Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia. The letter serves as a collaborative effort from Stringer and Williams to inform Garcia of concerns from older New Yorkers who are struggling to obtain diverse and nutritionally valued food.

Stringer and Williams acknowledge Garcia’s efforts in newly placed systems which are increasing the volume of the city’s food distribution networks. The two city officials asked the newly appointed food czar to provide additional food pantries to compensate for the 30% of New York City’s pantries that have been terminated since the COVID-19 invasion. “These pantry closures are creating increased demand on the pantries that are still operating, and also creating ‘food pantry deserts’ in neighborhoods where there are no or very few food pantries in operation,” Stringer and Williams jointly wrote in the letter. The letter urges the city to invest in creating new emergency programs to assist with the demands of high food security in affected communities and neighborhoods.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and his office have been contributing in efforts to minimize the projected 2 million New Yorkers who could go hungry during this pandemic. “Our office has been proud to support efforts to feed New Yorkers, forming a partnership between all the borough president’s offices and Fresh Direct to distribute meals in locations throughout the city, working with various Muslim organizations to hand out 45,000 halal hot meals out of food trucks during the month of Ramadan, and collaborating with the Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger to open a new distribution facility to reach even more Brooklynites.”

Another issue the letter addresses is the vast growing demand for home delivery meals and groceries for seniors. The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted seniors more than any other age groups. Medical News Today reported that older adults are more likely to have pre-existing health conditions, such as diabetes and respiratory illnesses, which lead to weaker immune systems. This makes it difficult for those older adults to recover from coronavirus. According to World Health Organization data from April 2020, more than 95% of COVID-19 deaths were among people over 60 years of age, and more than half of all deaths occurred in people of 80 years and older. As of May 26, 2020, Statista.com published the death rate from COVID-19 among adults 75 years and older as over 1,472 per 100,000 population in New York City. This data supports deeming seniors as the most vulnerable of the population to the virus.

Seniors have felt the biggest impacts of COVID-19, leading public health officials to advise most seniors to stay home. Commissioner Garcia has contributed efforts into handling the city’s food crisis. In April, Garcia said, “No one will go hungry in the city of New York.” Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged to spend $170 million to help feed New Yorkers in need. The mayor has urged any senior citizen in New York City in need of food deliveries to contact 311. However, the Department for the Aging issued data which shows about 200 complaints to the city’s 311 line between March 30 and April 12 from seniors asking about missed meal deliveries, according to The City publication. Garcia also said in April that she is improving the delivery program for seniors who missed their deliveries. “As we move forward we will continue to strengthen all of our systems to support that delivery mechanism—both through the Department for the Aging and through the Get Food portal—and make that more seamless for everyone involved,” said Garcia.

“I’m a pretty tough critic but I give the city a lot of leeway on this,” said Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free NYC. Berg expresses his sympathy towards the complexities of how New York City is attempting to meet the huge demands of seniors’ food deliveries. “They are implementing over the course of a few weeks, a brand new, absolutely massive program of the size that normally would take the government years to implement.” Although Hunger Free NYC doesn’t directly distribute food, they are helping seniors sign up for benefits. “We’re going to be helping people apply for the pandemic EBT program. We have been pushing the government to do more and better, particularly Republicans in congress.”

Stringer and Williams included the importance of appropriateness, diversity and quality food. They lastly expressed in their letter that New York City should make additional efforts to cater to specific dietary needs, consisting of halal, kosher and vegetarian foods. Requests for Information have also been sent to senior service providers, “to assess capacity and interest in participating in the Get Food NYC network.”

The goal is for these food delivery services to improve quality, choice and experience serving the food needs of the city’s seniors. Stringer and Williams are awaiting a response from Garcia.