New York City

Council member, advocates criticize reduced city funding for senior meals

The mayor’s latest budget proposal would lower funding for meal programs for older New Yorkers because of “less than anticipated usage.”

Meal programs for seniors are threatened by budget cuts, Council Member Crystal Hudson says.

Meal programs for seniors are threatened by budget cuts, Council Member Crystal Hudson says. Benny Polatseck/Mayoral Photography Office

New York City Mayor Eric Adams has consistently said that his citywide savings initiatives – known as Programs to Eliminate the Gap – have been achieved without layoffs, furloughs or cutting services. 

How, then, do these plans achieve billions in savings? One strategy is vacancy reductions, in which agencies eliminate currently vacant positions, sometimes in large numbers. In the latest round of budget cuts included in Adams’ executive budget for fiscal year 2024, city agencies more frequently identified savings through cost “re-estimates,” defined as an agency spending less on a program or service because it cost less than they expected.

But ahead of a new round of City Council budget hearings set to begin on Monday, some council members and advocates are arguing that some of those re-estimates could threaten the city’s ability to adequately provide a service that New Yorkers rely on – meal programs for older New Yorkers. 

City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams and Finance Committee Chair Justin Brannan have repeatedly said that essential city services hang in the balance of citywide budget cuts that City Hall has implemented over the last year. They’ve also pointed to ways in which the city’s staffing challenges are already leading to service reductions. Applicants for food stamps, for example, have faced longer wait times because of a staffing shortage at the Human Resources Administration.

While the mayor’s executive budget slightly amended plans for another round of citywide cuts in fiscal year 2024 – exempting libraries from the latest cuts and reducing the level of required cuts for a handful of other agencies – council leaders still said that the remaining cuts will threaten key city services. “The Executive Budget still leaves our libraries facing significant service cuts, agencies that deliver essential services harmed, and programs that deliver solutions to the city’s most pressing challenges without the investments needed,” Speaker Adams and Brannan said in a statement responding to the mayor’s executive budget proposal in late April.

Last week, Council Member Crystal Hudson, who chairs the Committee on Aging, pointed to cost re-estimates for two programs from the Department for the Aging that provide meals for seniors, describing them as “ill-advised,” given the rising population of older New Yorkers and food insecurity in that population.

The budget for the department’s Home-Delivered Meals program, which delivers meals to homebound older New Yorkers, will see a $5 million reduction starting in fiscal year 2024, with the city citing “less usage than anticipated.”

Older adults are also able to receive meals at Older Adult Centers across the city. Funding to provide those meals is also being reduced because of less than anticipated usage, by roughly $7 million in fiscal year 2024, and then $5.5 million in the following years.

The City Council’s budget response, meanwhile, called for increased funding for these programs, including to cover inflation costs, provide weekend and holiday meals, and expand outreach to food insecure older New Yorkers. The council proposed an additional $51 million for Older Adult Centers, with most of that going to cover an inflation adjustment of congregate meals provided at the centers, as well as an additional $18 million for home-delivered meals.

Hudson and some advocates have raised concerns that spending re-estimates in the mayor’s latest budget will result in underfunding of those two crucial programs. “I've been hearing from so many advocates and older adults as well, older adults directly who are food insecure and get their only meals from home-delivered meal services and also at older adult clubs that they visit,” Hudson said in a recent live conversation on Twitter with Brannan and others on the city budget. “We want to make sure that we maintain funding for those programs.”

Jeanette Estima, policy and advocacy director at Citymeals on Wheels, echoed Hudson’s concerns. Citymeals is not a provider of the Department for the Aging’s meal programs, but the nonprofit provides meal deliveries that can supplement the city’s programs, including on weekends. “Especially for those folks on the Home-Delivered Meals program, these are folks who are not able to go stand in line at a food pantry or to go to a local soup kitchen at a nearby church,” Estima said. “They are really dependent on this program every day.”

Spokespeople for City Hall and the department said that all of the Department for the Aging’s latest savings were found through underspending and realizing unspent resources. “This administration is committed to older New Yorkers, ensuring we are a model age-inclusive city,” Gregory Rose, spokesperson for the Department for the Aging, said in an emailed comment. “While this has been a tough budget process for everyone, the Department for the Aging was able to secure 4% in savings by realizing unspent resources from a variety of programs we offer. This will allow us to continue key services to help residents in every borough age in place.” 

Jonah Allon, a spokesperson for City Hall, added that the latest round of savings was necessary because of economic conditions and budget needs that include the cost of the migrant crisis, labor contracts and slowing tax revenue growth projected in the city’s budget. “All of the savings the Department for the Aging achieved in this round were due to underspending and do not affect services at the department,” Allon wrote over email. “Our goal is to ensure we can serve as many older adults as possible, primarily those who need these services the most.”

But Hudson and Estima said that these budget cuts would come amid a boom in the city’s senior population, arguing that the city should be fortifying these programs. Older adults drive most of the state’s population growth, according to a recent report from the Center for an Urban Future. In New York City specifically, the over-65 population grew 36% from 2011 to 2021, while the under-65 population declined in that period.

“You could say there's a perfect storm,” Estima said. “We have this rising population, we have record inflation that has driven up costs of food dramatically. And we have seen the network of providers really struggling, ourselves included, under these double strains. I would say this is actually exactly not the time to be making cuts like this.”

“If we're not investing in the needs of older adults now, then we're going to have a real issue over the next 5, 10, 15 years, as that population continues to increase,” Hudson added.

Usage of Older Adult Centers, and the meals provided there, has fluctuated over the past three years, in large part because of the COVID-19 pandemic. While participants in the Older Adult Center meals program dropped from fiscal year 2020 (at 118,673 people) to fiscal year 2022 (at 89,230), early data from this fiscal year suggests renewed interest among older adults in returning to the in-person centers. The Preliminary Mayor’s Management Report, which spans the first four months of fiscal year 2023, reported a 153% increase in the number of meals provided at these centers compared to the first four months of fiscal year 2022, when the centers were just starting to reopen after pandemic closings. 

Recipients of home-delivered meals grew during the pandemic, and interest in the service has continued to grow even as more return to in-person centers. According to that report, over 1.4 million home-delivered meals were provided in the first four months of fiscal year 2023, up from roughly 1.3 million in the first four months of fiscal year 2022. “This demonstrates a continuing need for home delivered meals,” the report read.

City Council hearings on Mayor Adams’ executive budget kick off Monday, with testimony from the Department of Social Services, the Human Resources Administration and the Department of Homeless Services.