"I dare not stop," says the unstoppable co-founder and guardian angel extraordinaire. "18,000 people wouldn’t have enough to eat without Citymeals. I see frail elderly people on the street, going through garbage cans, buying cat food—maybe they have cats—but I have images of them, like those of the shut-ins we feed, in my head all the time.” What keeps her motivated after so many years? "I feel other people’s pain. When someone I know is suffering, I feel it. It’s so easy to see them as your own grandparents, their sense of loneliness. To see yourself…"
Thirty-two years ago, Gael read a newspaper article about homebound elderly New Yorkers not having anything to eat on weekends or holidays. Deeply disturbed, she called an equally upset James Beard, the renowned chef and cooking teacher, who called caterer and cook book author Barbara Kafka, and thus began a round robin of fundraising. On Monday, she contacted the New York City Department for the Aging to express her righteous anger to Commissioner Janet Sainer and announced they had collected $35,000 to feed the homebound. There was one caveat: all the money had to go towards meals; not as much as one dime could come out for a phone call. Commissioner Sainer assured her that wish would be honored. This 100% principle was and is the guiding foundation of Citymeals on Wheels. Gael had no sense where that gesture would lead. "I was totally naïve. I had no idea it would become what it is today."
After making several home visits to aging meal recipients, she wrote a powerful article for New York Magazine, where she reigned as a preeminent restaurant critic. She entreated virtually everyone she knew to join her in raising money to provide continuing weekend meals. She organized the original group, called Friends of Citymeals on Wheels, in partnership with the Department for the Aging. Gael was on a mission.
What began in 1981 with a group of like-minded individuals and a historic public-private partnership serving Christmas dinner for 6,000 needy elderly at a cost of $35,000, has matured into an organization now underwriting nearly 2 million meals annually, delivering 40% of all home delivered meals in New York City, and raising over $18 million this year alone.
The need is increasing as New Yorkers live longer. Gael’s unswerving focus and boundless compassion are the foundation upon which these accomplishments rest. 'I have a very visceral feeling about these invisible people, alone in their rooms, waiting for that meal to be delivered. New Yorkers like the idea of putting money towards something immediately doable, to someone on their block, or nearby… all these people hidden away. My job is to convey that image, so donors have a sense of what their gift means."
In addition to restaurant writing, fiction and freelance travel journalism, Gael is unquestioning in the time and effort she devotes to Citymeals. When an interviewer once asked what the best work she had ever done was, she said it was her marriage. “Now, I must admit it’s Citymeals. It’s much more meaningful and certainly more long-lasting! When I see the Citymeals on Wheels van on my street, I feel wonderful, thinking how far we’ve come. I don’t worry about not finishing the food on my plate anymore, because I know people are getting their meals. Citymeals is about people who don’t have enough to eat, and that’s unacceptable to me. These people count on us now, and we can’t break that lifeline."
For more information on Gael Greene, visit her Insatiable Critic website.