The commissioner of the city’s Department for the Aging has disputed a report that elderly recipients of Meals On Wheels have been asked to prove they are Orthodox to qualify for the more expensive kosher food.
“No rules have changed, no funding has changed. I have no idea what created this rumor,” said Lilliam Barrios-Paoli. “There should be no extra hoops that people have to go through.”
The New York Post on Sunday said that two groups contracted by the city may stop delivering kosher meals to some clients and are “trying to determine who’s Orthodox and who isn’t in an attempt to implement cutbacks.”
The Jewish Week learned last week that a Jewish community leader, who requested anonymity, had consulted Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs, about reports of such restrictions and whether it would be legal. Diament on Tuesday declined to comment.
In a telephone interview, Barrios-Paoli said that two of the 11 agencies that provide kosher meals in contracts in place since 2008 have indicated that rising costs no longer allow them to meet the city’s allotment of $7 per meal. The commissioner identified those agencies as the Jewish Association of Services to the Aged and Encore Community Services.
Sister Lillian McNamara, director of the Encore center, which provides services in Midtown Manhattan, told The Post “there’s no additional money for the kosher meals. Only strict observant folks are going to get it.” The agency has about 100 kosher-observant clients.
Sister McNamara could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Aileen Gittelson, CEO of JASA, told The Jewish Week Monday that there are no questions asked by her agency. “If someone says they are Jewish and wants kosher food we give them kosher food,” she said.
JASA is having trouble meeting the $7 cost for clients in Brooklyn because of the large demand placed on the caterers who provide the meals, Gittelson said, adding that there was less of an issue in Queens because of lower demand.
She said that competition among the large number of kosher food providers in Brooklyn has not led to lower costs for the meals. “You would think so. But in fact … in areas where there is more demand for kosher food it’s harder for us to meet the dollar amount [of the city contract].”
Barrios-Paoli said the city was “working very extensively with JASA” and she would send a letter to all case managers that, under contract with the city, provide the kosher meals to make sure there is no change.
She noted that local agencies that provide the meals are not the same ones that authorize the service for each client. She said Encore’s meals were arranged by SelfHelp, an agency that assists Holocaust survivors and other seniors. “I doubt they would put an extra burden” on recipients, said the commissioner.
She said in addition to kosher meals, the city also provides halal cuisine, meals tailored to the tastes of Polish and Asian immigrants and, for Hindus, vegetarian meals. “There is a huge array. It’s unlikely people will go for another group’s meal and not what they enjoy,” said the commissioner.
William Rapfogel, executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, said he was relieved to hear that the city had refuted the reports of a kosher litmus test.
“Thousands of senior citizens who are worried about all kinds of budget cuts know the issue of kosher meals isn’t something else they have to worry about,” he said.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s budget proposal calls for the closure of 50 senior centers in the five boroughs because of decreasing state aid. Seven of those centers are operated by JASA. Barrios-Paoli and Gittelson both said that transportation would be provided for seniors who live near the closed centers to have meals at another facility.
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