Every weekend, 18,000 elderly New Yorkers open their doors to Citymeals on Wheels volunteers. On holidays, Citymeals is there, too, delivering shelf-stable pantry items and freshly prepared full meals so that those who are homebound receive adequate nutrition and a few minutes with someone concerned with their overall welfare.
“We’re feeding the people who built this city,” executive director Beth Shapiro tells the Voice, noting that Citymeals has been around for nearly 35 years. “We’re honoring them and making sure we continue to take care of them. Nutrition, comfort, and a human connection are vital for keeping them in their homes and communities — where they want to be.”
Two years ago, Citymeals added the Chefs Deliver initiative to their roster of outreach programs. Launched by the board of directors’ co-president chef Daniel Boulud, the program asks chefs to commit to making and delivering a few hundred meals once a year.
“I felt that it would be nice to get more chefs involved, so that they could have a greater understanding of the program and the impact it has on their communities,” Boulud tells the Voice. “This is an opportunity to give recipients in a neighborhood a meal prepared by a chef in that neighborhood… and a way to connect the chef with their neighbor, too.”
Eventually, Boulud hopes he’ll have at least 52 chefs committed, so that the program will run weekly. Chefs including Andrew Carmellini, of the NoHo Hospitality Group; Steven Hubbell, of Junoon; Ryan Hardy, of Charlie Bird and Pasquale Jones; and Georgette Farkas, of Rotisserie Georgette, have already joined up.
Right now, Chefs Deliver runs monthly. On April 18, Boulud joined chef Marcus Samuelsson, of Red Rooster and Streetbird, and Tren’ness Woods-Black, owner of Sylvia’s in Harlem. Together, they prepared, packed, and helped to deliver a few hundred of the 200,000 meals delivered in Harlem each year.
“We’re a family-oriented business,” Woods-Black says of Sylvia’s, the restaurant her grandmother opened in Harlem over 50 years ago. “Our elders are a big part of our community. They’re in our churches, they’re our personal relatives. So us working with Citymeals is a natural fit. We have all of these different grandparents we can go visit, say hi to, and make a meal for.”
Woods-Black’s kitchen whipped up her grandmother’s meatloaf with red sauce, garlic mashed potatoes, and sautéed string beans.
“This is a very simple gift — fried chicken, collards, and mashed potatoes,” Samuelsson says of his own contributions to the program. “But it’s a great idea that Citymeals came up with — allowing us to give it! This is my favorite day of the year.”
Boulud capped the meal off with a dessert trio including a pistachio financier with raspberry mousse, a chocolate fondant, and a citrus vanilla gelatin with fresh papaya, mango, and blueberries.
Citymeals has a long-standing relationship with New York’s culinary elite. Back in 1981, writer and then-New York Magazine critic Gael Greene discovered that elderly New Yorkers did not receive meals from the New York Department for the Aging on weekends or holidays. Distraught, she brought other members of the food world together, raising $35,000 that went directly to providing Christmas meals for 6,000 people. Now, 15,000 volunteers make sure those meals are regularly delivered to those with chronic and disabling conditions.
They’re part of a growing population the rest of the city doesn’t often engage with, simply because we rarely see them. Around 60 percent of Citymeals recipients are over 80 years old, and 200 of them are over 100 years old; almost all of them need assistance walking; 57 percent of them live alone; and a heart-wrenching 8 percent of them have no regular contact with another human being.
Citymeals steps in there, too. And so can you.
Volunteers can interact regularly with elderly, isolated seniors through various forms of communication and time commitment. For those who want to leisurely exchange personal, heartfelt letters, there’s the Senior Script program. Those who are chatty can make a half-hour call to a senior once a week. And for those who can commit to weekly, in-person check-ins, there’s the Friendly Visiting program, where Citymeals connects volunteers with seniors (most often) in their neighborhood. Citymeals folks join in on visits until a relationship is established, helping forge friendships that mean so much to both parties.
“We are so lucky to have an incredible wealth of volunteers, but we always need more,” Shapiro says. “Our bread and butter is our meal deliveries. We’ll take whatever someone wants to commit: a one-time thing for a couple hours, or weekly. Come in one time and see how it works for you. None of us would be here without these older people, who are often hidden in their apartment buildings.”
Boulud, Samuelsson, and Woods-Black also recognize the impact of the Chefs Deliver program on their own cooks. “Many chefs and cooks are young, and they can’t contribute much financially,” Boulud says. “So if they can physically and personally contribute, it matters a lot. They’re growing up to become responsible adults, and they’ll continue to do their social work that way. It’s great.”
Throughout the year, the culinary community supports Citymeals through various fundraisers and festivals, including the Chefs Tribute at Rockefeller Center on June 6. The second Harlem EatUp festival (which Samuelsson helped found) will return on May 19-22 after nailing it last year. During the EatUp weekend, chefs from throughout New York and the rest of the country partner with local Harlem chefs for co-hosted dinners, grand tastings, lectures, and presentations. This year, chef Kenichi Tajima hosts chef Andy Ricker at Mountain Bird, chef Carmen Gonzales hosts chef Alex Stupak at Vinateria, and chef JJ Johnson hosts chefs Alex Guarnaschelli and Michael Jenkins at Minton’s, among others. Last year 11,000 people joined the festival; this year, organizers hope to get 15,000.
“Giving back to our community directly with Citymeals is one of the aspects of Harlem EatUp,” Samuelsson says. “Another is the work we do together throughout the year when we’re planning for it, with all the restaurateurs meeting to figure out how we can work better within the community. We’re growing the restaurant community here, too.”
“The Harlem food community still feels like a village,” Woods-Black agrees. “It still has that sense of wanting to take care of one another, whether it’s ‘Meet me at Red Rooster for a drink,’ or ‘My tablecloths didn’t come in, can I please borrow some?’ The community feel is still here. Having an event like Harlem EatUp just plays to that, with all the restaurants preparing our favorite dishes for both our community and all the foodies who come up. It’s really a good time. I’m looking forward to it again.”
As far as Citymeals is concerned, Shapiro applauds the continued growth of direct chef involvement. “Dozens of chefs have already committed to Chefs Deliver,” she says. “They go on a delivery once and are like, ‘Wow, now I get it. Now I know why we need to support Citymeals… and why the rest of the city does, too.'”