Michele Rodriguez, Program Director for Older Adults Programs, testified before the New York City Council Committee on Aging and Subcommittee on Senior Centers and Food Insecurity on 14 December 2023
Thank you for the opportunity to submit testimony on this important matter. Since 1886, University Settlement has been providing holistic social services to New York families. Currently, we have over 30 program locations across Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, where we provide programs including early childhood education, youth afterschool, mental health services for all ages, tenant support, and older adults.
On the Lower East Side, we continue to see an increase of older adults experiencing food insecurity. We run two monthly food pantries, one at the Meltzer Center and the other at our Neighborhood Center at 189 Allen St. Since COVID-19 and as inflation has driven prices up, participation in our food pantries has exploded.
Pre-COVID-19, we would regularly have about 90 participants coming to our monthly food pantry distribution. Now, we see almost two hundred people at both of our sites.
Our food pantry distribution starts at 9 AM, and we see participants lining up by 5 AM. The night before a pantry distribution, some participants will lock their carts on the fence to save their spot in line. There is immense anxiety in the line over whether everyone will be able to get food; sometimes, this anxiety can turn into anger at other participants.
• At our senior center on Allen, we provide hot meals to an average of 75 older adults from Monday-Friday. We can share heartbreaking stories about how we know our elders need more food support.
• We serve a hot breakfast, and we ask for a voluntary monetary contribution, which is required by our DFTA contract. We recently had to raise that from fifty cents to $1 to cover rising food costs. We saw a significant loss of members eating breakfast with us; one couple went from buying two breakfast meals to splitting one between the two of them. Our older adults cannot afford the additional 50 cents for breakfast, and while the contribution is voluntary, many participants feel too self-conscious to be in line and not contribute.
• We have many participants asking to buy an additional lunch to take home for dinner. While DFTA claims participants can buy an additional meal, our contract is structured on a per-person head count. If someone buys an additional meal, they do not count as an additional person. So, participants demonstrate creativity to qualify to buy lunches for relatives or friends at home.
We need to ensure that our older adults have access to healthy and affordable food in a dignified way. Here are some immediate ways that we can support our older adults facing food insecurity:
• We need healthier food options for distribution: our food bags primarily consist of canned goods, and our participants want and deserve fresh fruit and vegetables. We could receive funding to purchase more wholesale fresh produce from our vendors, which then we could distribute to our participants.
• DFTA could provide more flexibility in our contract to allow participants to buy multiple meals that count for our contractual requirements.
We need to do more to support our aging communities in NYC when it comes to food access. We appreciate the City Council’s time to hold this hearing.