A Tale of Two Lunch Times

In the diverse neighborhood of Washington Heights, services provide nutrition to seniors in need, catering to all kinds of communities.

By Inti Pacheco and Katherine Sullivan

The neighborhoods of Washington Heights and Inwood have the highest percentage of senior citizens on food stamps in Manhattan.

Seniors can face a lot of challenges in accessing healthy, affordable food. Some find it hard to purchase quality food on fixed incomes, especially when nutritional needs compete with rising medical costs. Others may have a hard time with the physical demands of grocery shopping and cooking.

There are nine main senior centers recognized by the local community board to fill the needs of the 60+ population in this area by providing free or low cost meals and other social services.

STAR Senior Center on West 187th Street serves some of the most in need seniors in the neighborhood. Managed by John Velez, STAR is a place where mostly hispanic people gather to socialize and get their meals.

The manager points out the issue of sky-rocketing rent prices as the main reason why seniors are forced to eat at the center. He says the elderly are being forced out of their homes and they can’t even think about getting the money for the nutritious food that they need.

STAR has about 1,800 members and they serve lunch for at least 140 from Monday through Friday. Velez says they have arrangements with other senior centers in the area to help those that would need the lunch on the weekends. A coalition has been formed by all the Senior Centers in Washington Heights and Inwood, along with the local hospitals and local politicians so they can help each other. Velez says they meet once every month to discuss the problems they each have and see how to solve these.

Photo Essay: Preparing and Serving Lunch at STAR Senior Center

The S.T.A.R. Senior Center is located at 650 West 187th st. From 12pm until 1pm they serve free lunch for every person who is older than 60.
The kitchen is run by Gregory Santana and he is helped by a crew of five to setup the lunch and serve it to the seniors.

Due to cutbacks on funding by the Department for the Aging, STAR stopped distributing food through the Meals On Wheels Program about four years ago. They used to give out food to over 400 seniors but now they only serve the 150 that show up every day at the center.

Down the block, a different community

Just around the corner, tucked away in an orthodox Jewish enclave of Washington Heights, Moriah Senior Center hosts the Older Adult Luncheon Club. The mix of seniors here gathers more for the social aspect of the club than for the free food. Some of the lunch member have been coming to Moriah for decades.

Shuli Guttman, Director of the center, points out each table of regulars as she walks through the lunch hall. In front of her is a table of friendly and closely knit widows. On her left is a table of Russians. To her right, a long table of Dominicans. In the back, talkative and outgoing Jewish women from the synagogue across the street. Behind her is the “cranky” table. She knows nearly all of the members by name.

Margarita is an 82 year old regular of the Older Adult Luncheon Club at Moriah Senior Center. Originally from the Dominican Republic, Margarita was born a conjoined twin, with her knee attached to her twin sister Carmen’s neck. She still has the scar to prove it, and she still spends all her time with her twin sister. And while they make be look identical, they have very different personalities. “My sister likes to look pretty everyday, putting on makeup. Me, I’m sloppy.” Lunch at Moriah is the only time she doesn’t spend with her sister, Margarita explains. She needs her space.
Dale is a 64 year old member of Moriah Older Adult Lunch Club. He is a recent retiree of the Department of Education where he worked as a special ed teacher for homebound students. He comes to Moriah for the friends and the food. The soup is his favorite thing on the menu. “It’s better than any Eastern European restaurant in the city”, he says.
At 102 years old, Rose Salik has been coming to the Older Adult Luncheon Club at Moriah Senior Center since 1984. Born in Ukraine in 1914, her family moved to Vienna shortly after her birth to escape WWI. Rose’s mother passed away when she was 4 years old, and Rose was raised at times by her single father and at times by her grandparents. When Hitler came to power, she moved to London, worked as a maid, and learned English. In 1943 she came to the US as a WWII refugee and has lived in Washington Heights ever since. Everyday, all year round, she walks seven blocks from her apartment to Moriah for lunch. “This is my home” she said of the center. “Look, I’m 102 and I love people. I love to talk.”

After lunch, some members will head back home, while others will stay at the center for the afternoon’s activities: a computer lesson, a pilates class, and a “laugh cafe”, where seniors share their favorite jokes.

Despite differences, both centers hold similar priorities. They both strive to provide seniors with healthy, balanced meals. Both are largely powered by volunteers to stretch the small budget they receive from the NYC Department of Aging as far as possible in order to serve a population largely forgotten in the bustle of the city.

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