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Corona seniors want to keep centers, meals as is

The staff at a Corona senior center that cooks and delivers the majority of senior meals in the area are worried that the sweeping changes in the city's senior center system will leave them out in the cold."If we lose our contract, this senior center will close," said Executive Director Deborah Barnes of the Florence E. Smith Senior Center, located at 102-19 34 Ave.The city currently has 97 home meal contracts. When it opens its new contracts for bidding on March 31, the department wants the number reduced to between 10 and 20.Barnes said she fears this will mean large vendors will make a single entree for large swaths of the city.She said her center delivers 328 meals cooked on-site each day to home-bound seniors, providing food and human contact."Sometimes the deliverer is the only connection a senior has," said Corona resident Rhoda Minors, 71, noting the daily delivery service is an extra lifeline. "If they don't see a person, a call goes out."The department has said it may require its new vendors to work with case management agencies, senior centers and other community groups to provide friendly visiting and telephone reassurance to meal recipients.Another planned change is the switch from hot meals delivered daily to frozen ones delivered twice a week. According to an Aging Department report on the switch, the agency will give residents the choice between hot or frozen food, but Barnes was skeptical."In reality, the only choice is frozen," she said.Corona seniors said frozen meals are not acceptable."We need to get the hot meals every single day," said Bill Walter, 75, the center's treasurer. "It's obnoxious. You can get frozen food in your supermarket."For Jackson Heights resident Sid Raderman, 84, the problem with the twice-weekly delivery of as many as five frozen meals is that many seniors do not have the storage space to keep the food."I wouldn't have room for anything else in my freezer," he said.The outcry over the shift to frozen food has caught some attention. Barnes said the City Council and Queens Borough President Helen Marshall signed on to keep the frozen meals from becoming the norm, but so far the plan has not been stopped.City Councilman Hiram Monserrate (D-East Elmhurst) said he planned to meet with the department Monday and raise the issue again in the Council."I need to ensure that our colleagues in Queens are well aware of this upcoming project, and how we need to do everything we can do derail this," he said.Monserrate said the Council will not be able to vote on the request for proposals, but "we have oversight over it, and I'm confident that we can prevail."State Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan (D-Ridgewood) also expressed concern, noting the revised department's budget is $35 million less than previous years."So many seniors depend on case management, home delivered meals and senior centers," she said. "To compromise these services would have far-reaching negative consequences."But even if Florence E. Smith survives the meal contract change, said Barnes, its executive director, the department also wants to reduce the number of senior centers from 327 to 100, and her center is on the chopping block.According to an agency report on the city's senior centers, 44 percent of the 329 centers are operating below 90 percent meal capacity, defined as "under utilized." Of those, the agency said, 95 percent have been under utilized for at least three years.Barnes said Florence E. Smith feeds an average of 55 seniors a day. The agency's expectation is 67 seniors a day."They consider this a center that's under utilized," she said, but noted her seniors think differently."They want the center here," she said. "They don't want to have to go two or three miles down the road. Some can't."Residents at the center for a monthly birthday celebration had high praise for its services."There's plenty of room, and we have a great leader," said East Elmhurst resident Clem Summerlin, 89. "This is one of the best ones of all I've been to, and I've seen a lot of them."Corona resident Rhoda Minors said the center provides a crucial element for seniors: connections to other people."It's a network," she said. "If I don't come for a day, somebody at my table will ask, 'Where's Rhoda?' ...If you come out to the center, you've got to wash, you've got to dress up - it's a major component of everybody's life."Jackson Heights resident Sid Raderman said seniors are worked up about the issue, but lack visibility."We don't have 50,000 people to walk in front of City Hall," he said. "The old people can't get there."Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e-mail at jwalsh@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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