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Volunteers Step Up to Distribute Food for NYC's Seniors

JANMARIS PEREZ, HOST: There are over 1 million senior citizens living in New York City today. Already vulnerable to COVID-19, the elderly are also affected by the city shut down in unique ways. Many seniors rely on city services for recreation, health monitoring, and free meals. But volunteer organizations are filling the gaps. Megan Cattel reports.

MEGAN CATTEL, BYLINE: Yu-Mei Wang is seventy-nine years old and has lived at Hong Ning Housing for the Elderly for the past decade. It’s a building for low-income seniors who are over sixty.

Wang lives alone and says when the city’s PAUSE order took effect, she was worried about not being able to go outside for groceries or see her home health aide on a daily basis.

YU-MEI WANG: [In Mandarin]: I have [some worries]. Why? I can’t go outside because the virus is contagious, so I don't dare go out. (为什么呢?我觉得这个出去以后呢,这个病要互相传染,所以就不敢出去.)

I live inside this building led by the Chinese-American Planning Council. They have a department responsible for senior citizens. I reserve food and they come and deliver it for me. (我住在这个大楼里面,是华策会(Chinese-American Planning Council)领导的,他们有老人局,我订了饭,他们会送来.)

CATTEL: Wang tells Priscilla Fok, the wellness coordinator at Hong Ning, in Mandarin that she relies on Meals on Wheels deliveries for most of her food. But when the virus hit, those meals didn’t arrive for a week.

WANG: [In Mandarin] Translation: Every day I have it. Note: ‘it’ referring to Meals on Wheels) (每天都有的.)

PRISCILLA FOK: Every day (每天.)

WANG: One week... (一个星期...)

FOK: But there was a week when the deliveries stopped, right? (但是一个星期停了对不对?)

WANG: It's okay, no problem. (还可以,没问题.)

CATTEL: Wang tells Fok that, in the end, it was okay because she called her home aide, who told her not to worry, that she wouldn’t let her go hungry and could buy her some groceries.

WANG: [In Mandarin] Translation: Because my homecare aide told me, “Auntie, you can relax, your homecare aide has to eat something too!” so she wouldn’t let me go hungry. (还有因为我的护理跟我说, "阿姨,你放心,(只要)她们护理有东西吃," 就不会让我饿着肚子.)

CATTEL: Wang’s story shows how reliant seniors can be on the services that feed them and the challenges they’ve faced during this pandemic.

The city’s 250 government-funded senior centers shut down their free meal services and access to healthcare check-ups in mid-March. In response, the Department for the Aging expanded its meal delivery services.

But volunteers have also stepped up to fill the gaps.

Patrick Mock manages 46 Mott Street, a bakery in Chinatown. Every day there’s a line wrapped around the block where he works—each person standing six feet apart. Most of them are elderly and waiting for a free boxed lunch.

The front of 46 Mott Street, a bakery in Manhattan Chinatown. For nearly 3 weeks, the bakery has been serving free boxed lunches for seniors and those in need. Patrick Mock, the manager (pictured here on the left) says the menu changes each day. Volunteer Karlin Chan (pictured second to left) says the lunches always have a veggie, protein, and rice--from 3 cup chicken to beef and broccoli. Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou (pictured second to right) found Patrick's first donor for the lunch program. Photo provided by Karlin Chan.

(L to R: Patrick Mock, Karlin Chan, Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, and Jenny Low)

PATRICK MOCK: I had a queue of about 300 yesterday. They’re actually waiting for two hours you know, just to get a hot meal from me.

CATTEL: With the city mostly shut down, Mock noticed more of the neighborhood’s seniors needing access to food. He explained this while packing bakery orders from inside the shop.

MOCK: One thing I noticed is that a few of them after they finish their noodles, they're trying to add more often water into the cup. I asked them why. And they told me how the cup noodles they could use it as a two-for-one meal. So pretty much after they finish all the noodles, they fill up the cup of hot water and drink it as a soup. And then that's when I really found out there was a need there.

CATTEL: Food insecurity among seniors is dire, says Jenny Low. She’s a donor and volunteer for 46 Mott’s lunch program. Low is well connected to the elderly communities in the Lower East Side and served on the board for the Chinese-American Planning Council for 30 years.

JENNY LOW: I mean, this devastation is something I’ve never seen before even as bad as it was after 9/11.

DR. TINA SADARANGANI: The food banks are you know drying up. It is immensely challenging for them to provide meals to those who need it.

Dr. Tina Sadarangani researches the needs of senior citizens at NYU.

SADARANGANI: The grocery stores, you know, are hard enough to navigate when you're able-bodied person, food deliveries, all that type of thing. It's hard to get. So it is an enormous challenge. Just my colleagues and the community are hearing about this right and left. It’s a huge problem.

CATTEL: Seniors of color are especially vulnerable. 60% of New York City’s seniors have limited proficiency in English. Hispanic and Asian immigrant seniors are more likely to live below the poverty line than other racial groups.

Karen Zhou runs Hillcrest Homes, which serves 4,000 seniors in Southern Brooklyn.

She says they’ve had to quickly readjust to operating remotely, like creating their own food delivery program.

ZHOU: So I think it's still a learning curve for everyone. But for us, we've never done delivery before. We have, we don't have funding to be contracted to do meal delivery. But I think we felt that it was the right thing to do, given the situation, and that we can't just, you know, sit there and not serve the seniors that we know need help.

CATTEL: It isn’t clear if these volunteer efforts can be sustained long term, as they rely on donations to continue serving seniors. However, what they are doing is helping people like Yu-Mei Wang have access to food and stay connected in a time of social isolation. Wang says what has helped the most is not just the free delivery program, but the handwritten notes that come with some deliveries written in Chinese.

WANG: [In Mandarin] Translation: Look at these. These are cards people sent me. They say KEEP GOING, We are thinking of you! We miss you! They are very good! So many people thinking of me makes me feel so touched. It gives me energy! (这个你看啊。这卡上面写着,它说"加油!我们爱您。我们在想你。有这么许多人在关心着我。我心里很感动,就有力!)

CATTEL: Holding up each card on Zoom, she says Look! the cards say KEEP GOING! We love you! We miss you! Wang says these messages give her energy.

Megan Cattel, Columbia Radio News.

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