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City grows chillier - Hot meals to be replaced with frozen fare

The city’s plan to give homebound seniors frozen meals is getting a frosty reception from some local lawmakers. Councilmember Vincent Gentile is so hot over the move to deliver frozen food that he has launched a petition drive. He’s worried the program may further isolate some shut-in elderly. State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, who recently facilitated a meeting between Brooklyn senior center directors and the Department for the Aging Commissioner, expressed concern about the quality of the new frozen meals. Montgomery also noted Brooklyn’s diverse palate and questioned whether meals would be “ethnically familiar.” In an effort to “modernize” services across the five boroughs, the city’s Department for the Aging (DFTA) has proposed sweeping changes to its services, including the Meals on Wheels program. Officials say they must overhaul the system in order to cope with the city’s burgeoning senior population. Over the next 25 years the number of New Yorkers over 65 is expected to nearly double and by 2030 one fifth of city residents will be seniors. This dramatic growth will no doubt strain existing resources. In order to cope, the Bloomberg administration wants to reduce the frequency of food deliveries—while not cutting the number of meals that are actually provided. Under current proposals, the city would give seniors the choice of either getting one hot meal delivered daily or frozen meals delivered twice a week. Department for the Aging spokesperson Christopher Miller said that the new system would give seniors more flexibility. “Some seniors need that daily knock on the door, but some don’t,” Miller said. “They like their independence.” Miller said that case workers would assess every client, their needs and their ability to reheat the meals. The DFTA launched a pilot program in The Bronx in 2004 that incorporated the frozen meals option. About 40 percent of clients opted for frozen food over hot meals. The department is seeking to roll out the plan citywide later this year. As part of the cost-cutting changes, the DFTA is also proposing slashing the number of organizations it contracts with. Currently Meals on Wheels provides about 15,000 meals each weekday across the city, 4000 of those are to Brooklyn seniors. Food is prepared and delivered by a total of 97 contractors citywide, usually neighborhood non-profit groups. Under the restructure, the DFTA is seeking to contract with 10 to 20 larger, centralized operations. On March 25, Montgomery sponsored an “informational dialogue” between senior center directors and Department for the Aging Commissioner Edwin Mendez-Santiago. The upcoming change to the food program was one of many topics discussed. Montgomery said, “None is us believe that frozen foods are as good as fresh food.” She said she is also concerned about whether the new centralized catering facilities would be able to accommodate Brooklyn’s many ethnic groups. “You can’t just give the same food to everyone,” Montgomery said during a recent phone interview. City officials say the frozen meals program would actually increase the number of menu choices available to seniors. Gentile, who recently started a petition drive against the changes, said he feared the program would mean seniors would lose out on important face-to-face interaction. “I have received the department Commissioner’s reassurances that any resident who would like a hot meal will be able to get one, but we need them to know how serious of a situation this is,” Gentile said in a recent statement to the press. “Meals are not merely nutritional but they are also part of a vital lifeline, allowing regular interaction for the senior with providers. This type of communication has been known to save lives of seniors who were in need of assistance,” Gentile added. Members of the public may stop by Councilman Gentile’s office at 8703 3rd Avenue in Brooklyn to sign the petition, or sign the “e-petition” at Names will be submitted to Mayor Bloomberg.

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