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
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.
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.