Shirley Wulff likes almost everything in her weekly meal delivery from the city – except some of the vegetables.

“I thank God for it,” she said of the service. “It’s wonderful.”

Wulff has mostly stayed home since the pandemic began, she said, venturing out only for the occasional grab-and-go lunch at the senior center in her South Brooklyn neighborhood of Bensonhurst. She said the frozen meals dropped off by city contractors come in handy when she doesn’t feel well enough to go out.

But these emergency meal delivery for seniors will end on June 30th, leaving clients like Wulff to fend for themselves. Many will pivot back to indoor meals at senior centers, just as COVID-19 cases are on the rise again, driven by the highly transmissible BA.2 substrain of the omicron variant.

Their other option would be to try and get into the city’s regular home-delivered meals program, which requires an intensive and time-consuming assessment. Wulff said she applied recently for the permanent program but was declined.

“I don’t know what to do,” she said.

The city’s Department for the Aging told Gothamist that of the 8,000 or so current recipients of pandemic meal delivery, only about 3,000 are possible candidates for home-delivered meals. Operators of meal delivery agencies said they worry that under the city’s budget plan for the next fiscal year, they won’t have the money, or staff, to absorb an as-yet-unknown number of new clients.

The city is hoping to direct many of the remaining seniors to communal meals at older adult centers, which are now open at 100% capacity without a vaccination requirement. Operators of older adult centers said that while many attendees were thrilled to return to centers and see their friends, others are hesitant to eat indoors while community transmission is still high, given the coronavirus poses special risks to their age group.

City officials said the program was always meant to be temporary and that recipients will be transitioned to more permanent services. Advocates, service providers and lawmakers, meanwhile, are calling on the city to bolster funding for home-delivered meals and for the Department for the Aging, which they said is underfunded relative to the number of New Yorkers it serves.

“This is a crisis situation,” said Jeremy Kaplan, executive director of Encore Community Services, a senior center operator which has also contracted with the city to deliver pandemic emergency meals to older adults since November. “If even 25% of [pandemic clients] need and qualify for home delivered meals, that’s a massive infusion of new home delivered meal recipients to a system that is already struggling to maintain its infrastructure.”

Before the pandemic, government-funded senior centers served meals to about 25,000 New Yorkers each weekday. When they shut down along with the rest of the city, operators switched to grab-and-go meals and tasked employees with calling attendees to make sure they were OK. Neighbors and nonprofits like Citymeals also stepped up to ensure that the most vulnerable adults were fed.

Within a few weeks, the city was delivering emergency food to about 44,000 older and homebound New Yorkers, Lorraine Cortés-Vázquez, commissioner of the city’s Department for the Aging, told Gothamist. That program, GetFood NYC, ended in November and was replaced with the current service, which is only available to former GetFood recipients 60 years of age and older.

Cortés-Vázquez said that the number of recipients has been dwindling ever since.

“Many people have said, ‘I’m ready to do my own grocery shopping,’” she said.

'They just want to have their food'

In March, the Department for the Aging sent recipients a postcard informing them that the meal deliveries would end. The mailing also included a survey to determine whether recipients should be added to the regular meals on wheels roster.

Some providers and advocates raised concerns about the length and complexity of the process, particularly with the end of the temporary program just two and a half months away.

To be eligible for non-pandemic meal delivery, older adults must be unable to shop or cook for themselves. That means the assessment process can be long and at times invasive, said Jeanette Estima, director of policy and advocacy at Citymeals on Wheels, which delivers food to older adults on days not covered by the city’s program.

According to data from the Department for the Aging, just 1,200 of the 8,000 seniors receiving pandemic meal deliveries are being assessed for the permanent program. Another 1,800 declined to apply, although Estima said she hopes they’ll come back around.

Estima urged the Department for the Aging to phase out pandemic meal delivery more gradually rather than all at once. She said a slower departure would ensure that there’s time to prepare for the influx of new clients — and to streamline the process for older New Yorkers, who may get confused by the change.

“They shouldn’t necessarily need to be involved in the nitty gritty of city budgeting and politics,” she said. “They just want to have their food.”

Asked about the time crunch, Cortés-Vázquez said she’s confident the city will be ready for the end of the program.

“My concern about getting it done by June 30?” she echoed. “I don’t have a concern.”

'The bare minimum'

Cortés-Vázquez and other city officials are urging the remaining recipients to come back to senior centers for lunch.

The centers, which reopened last summer and recently lifted COVID-related capacity restrictions, don’t have a vaccination requirement, though they still have masking and distancing rules.

About 83% of New Yorkers 65 and older are fully vaccinated, but just 57% have at least one booster shot. And New Yorkers 85 and older have the lowest vaccination rate of all adults in the city. Less than two-thirds have a full course of vaccines.

Senior center operators hope to be able to continue offering grab-and-go meals to older adults who don’t feel safe eating indoors.

“We’re still in a pandemic, and it’s really important for us to give people choices,” said Laura Marceca, associate director of older adult services at Greenwich House, which operates four senior centers in Manhattan.

In its response to the preliminary budget, the City Council called for $30 million in extra funding to feed pandemic meal delivery recipients. In a written statement to Gothamist, City Council member and aging committee chair Crystal Hudson called the money “the bare minimum needed to ensure all older New Yorkers have access to quality, culturally-relevant meals every day of the week.”

As city officials and lawmakers hash out the details, seniors like Shirley Wulff are trying to figure out how they’ll stay fed this summer.

“I wish they would continue,” Wulff said of the pandemic meals program. “But when it ends I’ll think of something.”