A typical Friday at the Florence E. Smith Senior Center in Corona sees staffers and volunteers up early in the morning, working in and around the facility’s kitchen with the precision and seriousness of a military operation.
Most days they serve lunch to seniors on communal tables with plastic red-and-white table cloths that resemble those in an Italian restaurant.
Friday mornings are different, as the first cooling, prep and packing of the day is geared to getting three square meals for the coming weekend to elderly homebound residents who depend on Citymeals on Wheels.
Regular city-funded programs that bring shut-in seniors their meals Monday through Friday don’t deliver on weekends and holidays.
Citymeals on Wheels fills in the gaps.
Teaming with the personnel and delivery trucks of the Florence E. Smith Senior Center, Citymeals will serve 500 people on Friday. And that’s just for northeast Queens. The group serves more than 4,800 people across the borough every weekend and holiday.
Juliet Fraser is the executive director of the center. She believes many do not comprehend the need right in their own communities.
Each weekend Citymeals serves 18,400 people in the five boroughs, or slightly more than the capacity of Madison Square Garden for a New York Rangers hockey game.
Every weekend and holiday.
“I think what would surprise people about hunger is that it exists right here in this city, that it can exist in this country,” Fraser said.
Citymeals on Wheels even goes out under emergency conditions such as blizzards or nor’easters that might otherwise leave residents without a meal.
“I have clothes for all weather,” said Wanda Flores, shortly after loading her truck at the center and heading out on her route.
Flores has been a driver for 17 years. This day she will deliver to nearly 50 people in the Whitestone, Bayside and surrounding areas.
The hot meal each day is a lifeline for those who might not have the ability to get out to the store or cook regularly.
And for others, who might not have family or friends close by, or who just have trouble with mobility, the food delivery can also represent their most regular interaction with people outside their home.
The organization considers the check-ins to be as important as the meals.
“I ask how they’re doing,” Flores said. “Sometimes I can tell they’re sick or having a bad day. Sometimes they’re slow answering their bell.”
Sometimes, as happened with Flores recently, no answer comes at all.
“I called the center immediately ... Then I waited for the ambulance.”
Friday’s run includes a hot meal for that day, plus packaged nonperishable meals for Saturday and Sunday. There also is a cold pack with milk, condiments and other extras.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as “a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.”
“In New York City, one in 10 seniors faces food insecurity,” Citymeals Executive Director Beth Shapiro told the Chronicle in an email. “And the homebound elderly who we serve are the hidden hungry — they are living behind closed doors. Citymeals ensures they never go a day without a nourishing meal and a friendly check-in. Often that is all they need to age with dignity in their own homes and communities, where they want to be.”
Most residents greet Flores warmly. Some just say “Thank you,” and she moves on.
One woman apologizes for not being properly dressed to answer the door — she had overslept. But Marvin Alweiss always gives an enthusiastic welcome.
“I like the food,” he said. “Their service is good.” Hamburgers, in Flores’ experience, are the most popular offering she brings clients. Alweiss has his own favorite.
“I like the beef stew,” he says with a broad smile.
Carmen Fernandez greats Flores with a hug.
“She’s like my family,” Fernandez said, with Flores able to make a quick visit to the apartment, which includes a serenade from three generations of parakeets.
Fernandez said she first needed the service a few years ago following a hospital stay caused by a fall on ice.
She keeps a menu handy, and enjoys the tuna salad and the cold cuts. But she also said that despite cultural and ethnic changes in the neighborhood over the years, Citymeals on Wheels keeps up with her and her background.
“I love rice and beans,” she said, pointing to the menu. “I always know when my rice is coming. I always know when my cold cuts are coming.” Each meal contains protein, a vegetable and a carbohydrate, fat-free milk, a slice of whole wheat bread and a small dessert such as fruit or applesauce. It is low in salt with no added sugar.
To qualify, a person must be at least 60 years old and have a chronic physical condition or mental disability preventing him or her from shopping for food or preparing meals alone. Those with SNAP benefits or who have a home health aide still may quality.
All must be referred for an in-home assessment by their area’s case management agency, which can be determined on the Citymeals website. Those interested in receiving home-delivered meals or making a donation are asked to go online at citymeals.org, or to call (212) 687-1234.