At 6 a.m. on an hot and humid early summer morning, I visited Borinquen Senior Center in Bushwick, Brooklyn where staff from RiseBoro, an organization that partners with Citymeals, cooks and packages meals for older homebound elderly New Yorkers, who are no longer able to shop or cook for themselves.
Nearly a dozen people—chefs and staff—from RiseBoro are working with Citymeals on Wheels to cook and package meals for delivery to homebound, elderly New Yorkers who are no longer able to shop or cook for themselves.
The walls of the senior center are painted with brightly colored murals dedicated to Puerto Rican pride: flamboyant flowering trees, scenes of community building, and people dancing and celebrating in plazas in front of elegant colonial buildings.
But the room is now dark for most of the day. When the lights are on, the only sounds to be heard are voices of staff and volunteers diligently packing meals for delivery to their frail neighbors.
The city’s senior centers closed to the public in mid-March due to the pandemic, leaving many older New Yorkers with no place to go for breakfast or lunch. Practically overnight, a huge number of them became homebound, isolated, and unsure where their next meal would come from.
Following the first wave of the pandemic, demand for food among the city’s seniors has been and remains unprecedented. Before the crisis Citymeals served more than 18,000 homebound elderly. Since March, Citymeals has added 3,000 recipients to its weekend meal route. They have also served another 34,000 older New Yorkers who are not on a regular delivery route.
These are seniors who were not homebound prior to the crisis, but now face food insecurity. Before the pandemic, these new recipients might have gone to a local senior center for a daily meal. But now, even a trip to the corner bodega is too risky for those with chronic illnesses.
What Disasters Reveal
I have spent much of my career covering ecological disasters, and it has prepared me for the civil unrest we’re reeling from. From the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima to the abject failure to respond to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, these disasters all reveal the underlying needs of society, and the true character of those tasked with responding.
When these photos were taken, New York City was experiencing two social tsunamis: the pandemic and the protests against police violence following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. During that time, I spent my mornings and afternoons with Citymeals staff, seeing in a new way the acute need for food and decent housing for the elderly, including many older people of color.
The people delivering meals featured here put their lives on the line each day to check in on their neighbors and ensure they get fed. Even at the height of the surge in COVID-19 infections and deaths in New York in March and April, they continued to make deliveries uninterrupted. They walk many miles each day, ride dozens of elevators, press hundreds of doorbells. For increased safety, they now place each meal in a plastic bag, hang it on the doorknob, and stand back six feet until the door is answered and they can make sure their recipient is well.
As I followed meal delivery staff in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, another element of need quickly became apparent: the psychological stresses older people endure due to poverty and isolation.
In pre-COVID times, food helped bring people together, including the elderly. They met on benches outside their apartment buildings and greeted one another in community centers. Grandchildren stopped by with necessities and treats. But that has all stopped. Given the risk of this virus, the only contact these meal recipients have with other people is the brief exchange when food is delivered to them by staff and volunteers.
Deliveries on Manhattan’s Lower East Side
Linda White has been delivering meals to the elderly for the past five years. A designated essential worker, she is part of the city’s home-delivered meal program, supported by Citymeals. Over the past five years, White has gotten to know the elderly recipients well. As she makes her way through her route on the Lower East Side, she greets them with warmth and a gracious spirit. She’ll ask the older men she sees, “How’re you doing, Pops?” The work she does is as much social as it is about nourishment.
During the protests, businesses were boarded up after nearby establishments were looted, and some of the streets were closed. White remains undeterred. “Regardless of what’s happening,” she said, “we’re gonna make it work, even if we have to park three blocks down and have to walk. You gotta take the good and the bad. Not every day is gonna be smooth sailing.”
She considers these seniors family. “They know my knock,” she adds. And it’s evident meal recipients are not just numbers to be checked off on a delivery sheet. They’re all individual people with their own needs, histories, and tastes.
During the height of the pandemic, “They were scared for their lives,“ White says. “They made sure they social distanced because they didn’t want to get sick and they also wanted to protect me.”
“Before it used to be a warm welcoming when I came to the door,” White continues. “‘Hey, Linda,’ they’d say, ‘Come in for a second!’ Now, we have to be so distanced from each other. It’s like we’re missing that passion that we have for each other—and they definitely miss that intimate communication. . . . They’re like moms and dads to me. I really cherish them and look up to them.”
She says that loneliness and depression can be as detrimental to their health as going hungry. “A lot of these clients don’t have family, they’re alone. As long as I can protect them and myself, I will try anything to see a smile and just say hi.”
Putting Their Hearts Into the Meals
Another thing disasters reveal is that life is not just about surviving—it’s also about living.
Jeffrey Stewart, the chef at the Stanley M. Isaacs Neighborhood Center, sees cooking as a source of psychological comfort. Stewart crafts menus and selects ingredients with flavor as a priority.
While staff at these meal centers show the care given to homebound folks, the Citymeals’ Emergency Meal Distribution Center in the Bronx also illustrates the immense need for emergency food.
Fourteen percent of Citymeals’ recipients live on just one meal a day. Emergency meal boxes ensure they have additional food on hand, in case regular deliveries get interrupted.
Delivering with Care in Brooklyn
Andrew Smith rises early each morning at 4:30 a.m. and makes his way to RiseBoro in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn to pack up his delivery truck. With a concentrated intensity, he counts each meal and tunes out distraction. Like a surgeon working on a heart patient, he knows time is of the essence
Originally from Jamaica, Smith has traveled the world as a sprinter so he moves quickly and with precision. After packing the meals, he brings that speed and efficiency to his route: He usually ends his day at 2 p.m., while most others would finish hours later.
Smith is as personable as he is swift, and, like White, he spends time with each recipient, acknowledging the women with a charming, “Greetings to you, my lady.”
He sees more than a hundred people on his route—and he has memorized where each and every one lives. He does not rely on a map, which he said would only slow him down. Memorization, he said, enables him to make changes quickly when a recipient needs a meal at a certain time—to take their medication on a full stomach, for example.
New York yesterday entered Phase 4 of its reopening, with zoos, gardens, and outdoor bars and dining opening up; the bleakest days of the pandemic are starting to recede into the past.
However, as COVID-19 cases rise dramatically in other states, White, Smith, Stewart, and the organizations they work for know this may be only a brief respite—and the economy is a long way from recovery. The newest volunteers are still needed—and more are likely to come. The isolation, hunger, and need for care among seniors will continue and grow, especially with the potential for a second wave of infections this fall or winter.
All photos by Jake Price.