Vol. 17, No. 21 Oct. 21 - Nov. 3, 2004


All Meals on Ice In Bronx Pilot
Commish Defends Program


Homebound seniors in the Bronx who chose to continue with hot food delivery under the revamped Meals on Wheels program are receiving reheated frozen meals, contrary to what the city had previously indicated. 

City Department for the Aging (DFTA) Commissioner Edward Mendez-Santiago told the Norwood News that all seniors receive "flash frozen" meals under the pilot program, dubbed Senior Options, which rolled out earlier this month. "This has always been the plan," said Mendez-Santiago testily.

But critics were unaware that the "hot" meal option chosen by seniors who refused, or could not handle, the frozen meals were not freshly prepared. "The seniors of the Bronx were deliberately misled," said Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz in a letter to Mendez-Santiago earlier this month. "I don't think anyone believed that when you said hot meal you meant a reheated frozen meal."

DFTA announced last year that it intended to consolidate the Bronx' Meals on Wheels program from 17 to two providers, and serve frozen meals on a weekly basis to at least 30 percent of the 2,000 current recipients. After choosing the new vendors -- RAIN and Mid-Bronx Senior Citizens Council -- and three months preparation, old providers stopped serving clients at the end of last month.

The transition has been bumpy as scores of seniors received their meals way after the standard 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. window-time, or not at all. "Yesterday, someone came banging on the door at almost 10 p.m.," said Rose Cohen, 89, of Kings College Place. "I'm usually in bed by 8 o'clock." (On Monday, the Norwood News saw a RAIN meals truck driving around Norwood at 5 p.m. and again at 8 p.m.)

Mendez-Santiago said the mishaps in the pilot's first week were due to two RAIN delivery trucks which broke down. He indicated that complaints to DFTA have since dropped, with 100 in the first week and 25 as of last week.

"We acknowledge that there were a few problems at first ... but 97 percent of seniors have received their meals with few delays or no problems," Mendez-Santiago said. "We have seen a transition that has gone rather smoothly."

Though Mendez-Santiago said they fixed the program's "glitches," officials and former providers continue to log complaints. "They say it's a glitch, but it's not like a bus that didn't come," said Fran Namzoff, Mosholu Montefiore Community Center (MMCC)'s former meals coordinator. "Sure it's a work in progress, but it's not progressing."

DFTA considers the flash frozen meals an upgrade from past offerings, which providers cooked themselves. Repeatedly referring to criticisms of the pilot as "rhetoric," Mendez-Santiago said the meals are nutritious, appetizing, and "fresh like they were never frozen." 

None of the meals are prepared by RAIN. Most of them are manufactured by ConAgra, a food processing giant, and then shipped to RAIN for delivery. The Kosher meals, which Cohen receives, come from Queens. 

While Cohen liked the blintzes served one day, she thought reheating her meals made them watery. "I wanted hot meals," said Cohen, whose 91-year-old husband also depends on the program. "Some are cold, some are ice cold, and some look like [they were] defrosted. There's something wrong there."

Previous statements by DFTA did not indicate that the hot meals would be reheated. "Senior Options will provide up to 35 flash frozen menu selections [and] seniors may also choose to continue to receive a daily hot home delivered meal," stated a DFTA press release from May. A DFTA outline of the pilot program from last year clearly made a distinction between "hot/chilled/or frozen meals."

Cohen, who has cancer and a spinal condition, does not have a microwave and must use an oven to reheat the meals. "I can't cook," said Cohen, whose husband suffers from Alzheimer's. 

DFTA promised to provide microwaves to seniors who lacked them but chose the frozen meals option. Mendez-Santiago said that DFTA is seeking private funding to pay for the microwaves, and no seniors who needed them are currently receiving frozen meals.

Dinowitz and Council Member Oliver Koppell, two of the only local officials to oppose the pilot, held a press conference at City Hall last Wednesday. Council Member Joel Rivera, who supported the pilot along with most members of the regular Democratic organization, said his office is funding a hotline at the Mary Mitchell Center to track complaints independently. "We don't want to depend on DFTA's numbers," he said.

DFTA intends to conduct an independent review of the program after a year, and if deemed successful, it can be renewed for up to six years. 

Mendez-Santiago said that case managers have followed up with every complaint, and that many seniors are satisfied with the switch. "We have been very proactive," he said. "The story is, 43 percent chose to get frozen meals. The seniors are speaking for themselves."

But Cohen might not be saying what DFTA wants to hear. 

"They are not reliable," said Cohen, who subsisted on bread and yogurt when the meals didn't arrive last week. "Why did they take away the program from [MMCC]?" 

Ed. note: DFTA advises seniors with complaints to call 311, which refers the calls to their office. The hotline sponsored by Council Member Joel Rivera is (866) 420-MEAL.

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