November 22, 1982 | Vintage Insatiable
Citymeals: Food For Thought

        “I could introduce you to someone who will break your heart,” says Mary Canaday, social worker to the 300 homebound elderly fed lunch each weekday by Max Groeschler’s Nutrition and Health Center, on West 86th Street. We have just come from visiting bewildered and disabled old people living in the shocking squalor of a single-room-occupancy hotel four blocks from my home…all of them fed by various home-delivered-meals programs.
   
        “I think my heart is sufficiently broken,” I reply.

        “She lives at the Ansonia,” says Mrs. Canaday.

       Of course. From the beginning I knew it. A year ago, when food-world friends and I got caught up in an impulsive, fevered campaign to bring Christmas dinners to homebound New Yorkers, I knew they were living unseen, alone, helpless, on my very own block.
   
        The Ansonia is one of the West Side’s grand old buildings, an astonishing rendition of Beaux-Arts baroque now getting a flashy face-lift. “Louise H.” lives on the fifteenth floor in a nearly bare room with great high ceilings and a vintage bath, an air conditioner that cackles in the wind, a hot plate, and all her belongings in shopping bags piled high in one corner. Widowed, childless, 82 years old, she lies curled into a comma, all the toes of one foot lost to gangrene, bones now riddled with cancer, skin like wrinkled silk on fleshless arms, eyes bright, pleased to have company. Her meal is late. That’s all right. She eats very little anyway. She reads without glasses. “I loved this,” she says, pulling Shogun from the tangle of bed linen. “I’ve read it twice.”

        Leaving, I take her hand. She pulls mine close to her face as if she will kiss it. But no. She is looking at my ring. “What stones are these?” she asks. She keeps my hand. “When I was young and charming, someone gave me this.” She crooks her little finger. On it is a small old-fashioned diamond ring held on with a rubber band. She smiles. “Now I am not so young and not so charming.”

        “But you are charming,” I correct her. “We’re neighbors. I’ll bring you some novels to read.”
   
        “What a lovely thought,” she says. “I hope it turns into a lovely deed.”
   
        It was less than a year ago, a late Sunday morning, when the specter of hunger and loneliness first cracked through the indulgent -- indeed, often decadent -- luxury of a restaurant critic’s existence. I was lingering in bed over breakfast when the New York Times headline caught my eye: MEALS-ON-WHEELS SCRIMPS TO FEED AGED.

        And there was a photograph of Roberta Garvey, 67, disabled and alone, confined to her third-floor walk-up, one of 6,000 homebound elderly fed a single hot meal each weekday in a city-supervised program…but nothing at all on weekends. For some, a slice of bread and a piece of fruit saved from Friday would be Saturday’s meal. And a plea to 85 food corporations for goodies to fill Christmas baskets had brought not one response.

        I phoned James Beard to ask if he could get goodies. “We ought to do more than that,” James said. Barbara Kafka, restaurant consultant, now proprietor of Star Spangled Foods, phoned. “I just spoke to James,” she said. “What do you want me to do?” Together we roused our food-world friends. One hundred restaurateurs, retail food merchants, manufacturers, and individuals pledged over $400 apiece. The money raised was nowhere near the $1.3-million needed to deliver a weekend meal to the city’s homebound needy for the year. But it financed a Christmas dinner for 6,000 old people who would have had no holiday meal at all. Throughout the city, in Harlem and Chinatown, in Bay Ridge, on Staten Island, on the Upper East Side (where there are thousands of impoverished Mrs. Garveys), voluntary centers opened their doors to cook the meal we’d bought.

        As more pledges came in after the New Year, members of the food family asked to do more. Sugar Food president Donald Tober and food-management executive Jack Galione met with Janet Sainer, commissioner of the Department for the Aging and supervisor of the federally subsidized nutritional program, looking for ways to make the city’s buying more cost-effective.  Others wanted to find a way to get surplus food and product donations into the system. Was there a way to recycle restaurant food, day-old baked goods, the untouched excess of cookbook testings and food tastings?

        Individual restaurateurs came up with their own ideas. Ramazan Yuksek, once a penniless immigrant from Turkey, said he had fed 250 senior citizens Thanksgiving dinner at his Butterfly Café in Greenwich Village, and would do so again this year. Mel Dansky invited the Department for the Aging to send 75 old people to Tuesday’s for a late-afternoon dinner. Tony Goldman, owner of  Green Street Café, pledged to feed 50 neighborhood elderly one lunch a week for a year when his new Soup Kitchen opens in late fall. Bloomingdale’s, through the city’s matchmaking, found a Harlem community center to pick up everything left in its bakery at the end of each day. Shun Lee owners Michael Tong, and chef, T.T. Wang, initiated a campaign to get Chinese restaurateurs throughout the city to deliver weekend meals in Chinatown centers. And Peter Aschkenasy described how nuns from a nearby mission feeding the homeless came each day with their pots to the downtown Lüchow’s

        This year, reality is even crueler. Caretakers of our city’s underprivileged are organizing now -- soup kitchens, storefront emergency pantries. Federal cutbacks and inflation have eroded the city’s means for feeding the frail, stranded old people in a program that costs only $1,200 a year for each of them, measured against the $20,000 or $30,000 bill for each resident in a nursing home.
   
        When we are young we have a vague fantasy of old age, imagining ourselves in the golden years, retired to cozy comfort, surrounded by adoring kin, living on pension plans and saving and Keogh funds. No one ever plans to grow old abandoned, disabled, disoriented…alone in a shabby third-floor walk-up or the confinement of a closet-like room with only a hot plate and two chains on the door. New Yorkers are tough and cold and selfish, but we are also notoriously sentimental, loving, and caring.
   
        This week the city and friends of the food family are launching a new fundraising drive -- Citymeals-on-Wheels. Several corporations have agreed to ask each of their employees to donate $4.75, the cost to deliver a single hot meal. Other companies may follow. The Department for the Aging hopes to collect the $47,500 needed to bring Christmas dinner to 10,000 elderly. (On December 2 there will be a “modest little benefit” at Club A to raise money -- a country-and-western buffet, country dancing, city gossip and intrigue. For information, call (212-577-1738.)

        Funds can be spent in other ways: Three hundred dollars provides two cold meals in a weekend basket every week for a year for an old person confined to a single room with-out kitchen; $247 buys one weekend hot meal every week for a year. Donations to Citymeals-on-Wheels are tax deductible. Checks should be made out to Funds for Aging Services and mailed to the New York City Department for the Aging, 2 Lafayette Street, New York, New York 10007. For more information, call the number above.
   
        But money cannot buy family. Not every one of the homebound elderly wants to be adopted, but for some, loneliness is starvation, too. Every family, every Cub Scout troop, every grade-school class or high-school honor society or P.T.A. -- even banks and restaurants, grocery stores, and canasta clubs -- can adopt a homebound old person. I feel a positive shiver of delight when I think of the old woman who could be adopted by Zabar’s.

For current information on how to donate or volunteer, please go to Citymeals.org

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