A pending change in the delivery of meals to thousands of homebound seniors in the Bronx won’t affect the supply of kosher fare, says the commissioner for the Department for the Aging.
“There will be no interruption in service,” Commissioner Edwin Mendez-Santiago told The Jewish Week Tuesday. “Every single senior who requests a kosher meal will continue to get one.”
In a pilot program beginning in July, 17 small Bronx agencies that provide the Meals on Wheels service will be replaced by two larger agencies that will assume responsibility for the borough. The city hopes to save money by reducing administrative costs as well as the number of deliveries by providing some frozen meals for later consumption together with hot ones.
To win the contract, the two agencies, Mid-Bronx Senior Citizen Council and Regional Aid for Interim Needs Inc., promised to charge the city $5 per meal. RAIN expected to deliver as many as two-thirds of the meals in a $1.8 million deal.
The Bronx Jewish Community Council was unable to provide kosher meals at the $5 per meal price, and will take its refrigerated trucks out of action when the current contract expires. That left open the question about where the kosher meals would come from.
The Department for the Aging said this week that they would be provided by the Gloria Wise Boys and Girls Club and Community Center, which has a kitchen at a Co-Op City senior center under the supervision of Rabbi Solomon Berl. Frozen meals will be provided by Ale Processing Corp. in Queens, which is under the supervision of the Orthodox Union.
But more questions were raised last month when the executive director of RAIN, Louis Vazquez, admitted that his agency’s cost per meal would more likely cost closer to $7.
How the agency will make up the difference remains to be seen.
“It stinks to high heaven,” said City Councilman Oliver Koppel of the Riverdale section of the Bronx, an opponent of the RAIN deal. “We’re talking about meals for our seniors that provide daily reassurance, and for political reasons this is allowed to go through.”
The Village Voice reported recently that RAIN’s board is packed with political connections. Board member Luis Miranda is the political consulting-firm partner of the powerful former Bronx Democratic chairman Roberto Ramirez, whose former chief of staff is Vazquez’s wife, Lorraine Cortes-Vazquez.
When RAIN began pursuing the consolidated Meals on Wheels contract, numerous Bronx pols who opposed the change “either fell silent or endorsed the plan,” Tom Robbins wrote in the Voice.
Koppel said that once RAIN indicated it wanted to bid, “the Bronx machine supported [the agency].” He believes the contract should be rescinded in light of Vazquez’s testimony at a hearing convened by Bronx State Sen. Ruben Diaz that the true meal cost is $6.88.
“If I were one of the other agencies [who submitted unsuccessful bids], I would go to court,” Koppel said. “This was clearly a phony bid.”
Vazquez did not return several calls for comment.
When asked about the expected shortfall of nearly $700,000 between the newly stated cost and the bid cost, Mendez-Santiago said both RAIN and the second agency awarded the consolidated contract had been carefully scrutinized.
“We have been very careful in examining every proposal and looking at all issues involved and have been reassured by all the agencies recommended for award that they can do this at the $5 per unit cost, including kosher meals,” he said.
With a month left of the legislative session in Albany, lawmakers appear to be at a partisan impasse on a bill to protect kosher consumers. There has been little movement toward reconciling a bill drafted by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, both Democrats, with one from Republican Gov. George Pataki.
“There are discussions going on with the governor and Assembly and the Senate, and we are hopeful that we can get it resolved and into law this year,” said Mark Hansen, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, when asked if the upper house would pass a bill before the summer break.
The Assembly has already passed its version, which would require merchants to disclose their standards of kashrut. The governor’s bill focuses more on inspection and enforcement.
“We feel we created a good bill that the addresses the various needs, and we’re anxious to see it passed,” said Silver’s chief of staff, Judy Rapfogel.
David Zwiebel, vice president for government affairs at Agudath Israel of America, said that either bill would be better than the status quo of a law invalidated by federal courts. But on a hopeful note, he added that progress could be in the wings once the overdue budget is settled.
“We have discovered over the years that once the [state] budget is completed, all of a sudden issues that are currently dormant leap to the fore,” Zwiebel said.
The family of Koby Mandell came from New York, as did numerous other American citizens who fell victims to Palestinian terror in Israel in recent years. That’s why it may seem surprising that neither New York senator appears as a cosponsor of the Koby Mandell Act, which would require the Justice Department to pursue murderers of Americans in Israel. It is named for the 13-year-old boy bludgeoned to death in a cave near Tekoa in 2001.
Spokespeople for Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles Schumer had no immediate comment Tuesday on whether they supported the bill, introduced on March 23, which has 22 sponsors in the Senate, including Democrats Jon Corzine of New Jersey and Evan Bayh of Indiana and Republicans Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Norm Coleman of Minnesota.
Senior citizens gathered on the steps of City Hall Wednesday to protest a $500,000 cut to ESL/Citizenship funding. Since the Department for the Aging cut the funds in January 2003, more than half the classes at senior centers have been eliminated.
At the Jewish Community Council of Greater Coney Island, for example, the cut cost the agency $20,000 a year to fund a program that helped hundreds of elderly refugees with English language instruction.
“Hundreds of immigrant seniors of all ethnic backgrounds have become citizens through our efforts,” said Rabbi Moshe Wiener, the council’s director.
Commissioner Edwin Mendez-Santiago of DFTA said that when the funds were cut, his agency worked to provide other resources for those offering the classes, such as use of libraries and local colleges.
“This only affected 30 some agencies and we linked them with other resources,” he said. “Many of them continue to offer ESL through partnerships.”
But Bobbie Sackman of the Council of Senior Centers and Services said the resource links never played out on the ground.
“Anyone can open a phone book,” said Sackman. “They said find out if your local library has ESL. At the senior centers there was one-on-one tutoring.”