Gael Greene, longtime New York magazine restaurant critic, was reading the paper just a few days before Thanksgiving and noticed an article describing the plight of frail aged New Yorkers facing hunger. She was shocked to learn they were not receiving meal deliveries on weekends and holidays. “I picked up my phone and dialed the Department for the Aging (DFTA) to express outrage that in a city of such abundance, we could not care for our elderly neighbors in need,” Greene remembers.
Greene joined forces with legendary cookbook author and teacher James Beard. Reaching out to their friends in the food and hospitality industry, they quickly raised the funds necessary to prepare and deliver 6,000 meals for their homebound elderly neighbors on Christmas and Hanukkah. Encouraged by the response, the two resolved to build upon their success the following year.
DFTA Bureau Chief Marcia Stein had volunteered to coordinate those initial holiday deliveries. Dedicated to making Greene and Beard’s dream a reality, Stein worked to establish one of the country’s first public/private partnerships – with the fledgling Citymeals on Wheels operating under the auspices of DFTA – and became the organization’s first executive director. Thanks to this partnership, Citymeals has been able to promise that all public donations will be used entirely for the preparation and delivery of meals, since day one.
Renowned chefs Larry Forgione and Jonathan Waxman were spearheading plans for a benefit at Rockefeller Center Plaza to mark the eighty-second birthday of James Beard and feature chefs from across the country. When he passed away just months before the event, Gael Greene and the participating chefs decided to honor Beard at the party. Every June since, we celebrate both Beard and the food world’s commitment to our mission at the Chefs’ Tribute to Citymeals on Wheels – our longest-running signature event.
While the lack of weekend and holiday meals for the homebound elderly prompted our beginnings, Greene and Stein soon realized even more was needed. The Emergency Food Package, filled with nonperishable food staples, was designed to stock the cupboards of our meal recipients over the longer winter months. Thousands of these boxes were packed at the Brooklyn Armory Terminal. “Opening the box and seeing what was in it was like opening a chest and finding many wonderful treasures,” explained a meal recipient from Staten Island.
After ten years, Citymeals was delivering nearly one million meals annually. The growing need amongst the city’s senior population necessitated organizational change. Recognizing this, Citymeals on Wheels officially established itself as an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
From the start, Citymeals relied on the generosity of New Yorkers of all ages. With 16,000 meal recipients, we formally established our volunteer program. Over the first year more than 300 volunteers from schools, corporations, community groups and alumni associations delivered meals and smiles to their frail aged neighbors.
Citymeals recipients face tremendous social isolation. Our Friendly Visiting program launched in Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Coney Island and Flushing. Volunteers were trained and then matched with lonely older New Yorkers in need of companionship. Weekly visits quickly became lasting friendships.
The majority of people receiving home delivered meals subsist on very low incomes. Because of their disabilities, meal recipients are unable to access local food pantries, an important source of help for those well enough to walk in and carry home groceries. The Mobile Food Pantry began delivering food – soups, stews, cereal, vegetables and more – in March 2011 to 150 homebound elderly living in the South Bronx.
Board Co-President Chef Daniel Boulud kicked of the new year with the launch of Chefs Deliver for Citymeals. The initiative, spearheaded with fellow board member Chef Charlie Palmer, brought together chefs to cook restaurant-quality meals for their frail aged neighbors each month. Chefs David Burke, Cesare Casella, Marcus Gleadow-Ware and Adin Langille joined them on a snowy winter day for the first delivery.
Citymeals marked an extraordinary achievement as we delivered our 50 millionth meal on December 11th. Citymeals Co-Founder and Board Chair Gael Greene joined Founding Executive Director Marcia Stein and Executive Director Beth Shapiro to deliver the milestone meal to 71-year-old Florence, a former public school teacher who suffers with severe scoliosis and a displaced pelvis.