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Flushing lunch program struggles to feed seniors

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"I cannot close the door," Wang said on a below-freezing day in January with 10 inches of snow on the ground. "In this kind of weather I have 133 seniors coming for lunch."

The center's lunch crowd fluctuates but remains above the number of meals funded by the city. In the summer, the lunch crowd averages 230 per day. City funding, which arrives in July, allows him to feed only 120 seniors at the almost entirely Chinese center.

"Every year we have about 500 new members join our center," he said. "We just have too many more."

As he spoke about the center's financial woes, an elderly Chinese man went through the motions of his afternoon Tai Chi routine. In an adjacent room, women played Mahjong in foursomes. After lunch was cleared away, a group of seniors took English lessons on essential topics such as communicating with doctors and calling for emergency services.

"It's very difficult for me to run a center," he said. "Every year I see the membership jumping and jumping."

He said the composition of the 8,700-member center is 99.9 percent Chinese. When Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing) and Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum stopped by last week, their speeches were given in or translated into Chinese languages.

Gotbaum opened her speech with "Gong xi," a Lunar New Year's greeting, on Jan. 27. She promoted state services such as the Epic health insurance, which might be in danger if Medicare reforms pass, and SCRIE, the senior citizens rent increase exemption program.

"You are very special to all of us, your needs and the things you need to live better. We are watching," she said.

She did not mention funding for the lunch program in her speech.

"Today we didn't hear much of their concerns because of the language barrier," she said after her address. "It makes you think all the more about seniors and those who don't speak English -how much help they need."

Every year the city gives $450,000 to the Nan Shan Center in order to maintain it. There are five months left until Wang receives his next chunk of the city budget. Until then, he is writing letters to the Department for the Aging to ask for help. He is currently awaiting a response.

The agency did not return calls for comment.

Seniors arrive for traditional Chinese lunches at 10:15 a.m. everyday. For a voluntary contribution of $1, they receive a meal from a nearby restaurant that is valued at $3.50.

Since the seniors have learned of Wang's financial predicament, they have made contributions of up to $20 or $30. He is also considering fund-raising in the community.

He said about 60 percent of the seniors are from Flushing, and 40 percent of the elderly take trains and subways from Bayside and Jackson Heights. The center also provides Meals on Wheels for seniors who are immobile. The city pays for 50 Meals on Wheels recipients, but the center provides the service to 57.

"The ratio of the funding increase cannot keep up with the ratio of our membership increase," he said. "We need to provide lunch. Can we just close the door for no more service?"

Reach reporter Cynthia Koons by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 141.

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