Before Citymeals came along, the food stopped on Friday. Lack of Christmas dinner prompted givers to act

It used to be that New Yorkers who depended on Meals on Wheels for the food to survive ate on business days only. Monday through Friday, that was it. Nothing on Saturday, nothing on Sunday. And nothing on holidays -- that meant No Christmas Dinner. It was the non-appearance of Christmas dinner that was particularly galling to food writers James Beard and Gael Greene when they learned about it in 1981. They contacted their friends in the gala New York restaurant world and raised the money to provide one.

A result of that Christmas dinner is an ongoing program called Citymeals on Wheels, which is the envy of Meals on Wheels directors throughout the United States, who would welcome similar programs in their own cities.

Meals on Wheels, which in New York is a federally funded program, provides the vast majority of hot home-delivered meals to the housebound elderly in that city. Privately funded Citymeals leaps into the breach on Saturday.

``The sixth meal is a gift from the people of New York and the corporations of New York,'' says Marcia Stein, executive director of the program.

The restaurants of New York were responsible last year for almost half of Citymeals' $2 million budget. ``The idea was that restaurateurs were in a position to be particularly sensitive to people who were . . . not receiving meals on weekends and holidays -- just when people need it most,'' says Richard Lavin, owner of Lavin's restaurant and a member of the Citymeals restaurant advisory committee.

The program serves just under 7,000 people a week. In addition to the Saturday meal, Citymeals provides a Christmas or Hanukkah meal, and one meal on one other holiday of the recipient's choice -- such as St. Patrick's Day or Chinese New Year.

``Our hope is that there will be a meal every day, which means we have to start raising money for a seventh meal,'' says Ms. Stein.

Appreciation of New York's ethnic diversity is a feature of both programs, which regularly serve Hispanic, kosher, soul, and Chinese food.

``If you live in Harlem, you're not going to get a kosher meal,'' says Miriam Israels, coordinator of special events for Citymeals.

``It's very difficult to change the type of food people eat. That's why they're so unhappy when they go into [nursing] homes where everybody gets the same,'' she explains.

``Many people have a sense of pride and a desire to retain their independence. This way [with meals brought to them], they don't have to give up their homes and live in a public facility.''

It isn't necessary to be totally poverty-stricken to qualify for the Citymeals program (the requirement is to be alone and unable to shop or cook), but many recipients are extremely poor.

One man lives in a single-room-occupancy hotel, in a room so tiny the bed takes up most of it; there is no refrigerator and no stove -- and no room for them, anyway. The curtains, tablecloth, and wallpaper are of faded prints. The only ornament on the wall is a religious calendar, hung too high. The general feeling is one of no air and no light.

Those who are able to take adavantage of the assistance Citymeals offers express a lot of appreciation for the program.

``I'm so grateful, of course, to Encore [the senior center that prepares the meals], because without Encore, I wouldn't eat anything,'' says a charming 90-year-old former actor.

A 94-year-old black woman, who is a former chef (``I'm a first-class cook, so they say,'' she says in a soft Southern voice), gives the food a high rating when she describes it as ``just like home cookin'.''

One problem that home-delivered meals cannot solve is loneliness.

The loneliness factor is one reason home-delivered meals are considered less desirable by agencies than congregate (or communal) meals in senior centers.

Agencies all over the country, however, are reporting a shift toward home-delivered meals because of an increase in the needs of the ``old old,'' that is, people over 75.

Clients, when visited by on-site inspectors, have the instant gaiety and bonhomie of gracious and lonely people. Anecdotes are retold, d'ebris on chairs is cleared off painfully but with determination. They urge visitors to sit down, to talk, to take root in a chair.

And programs like Meals on Wheels and Citymeals do bring an expression of caring into people's lives. Each recipient is checked on six days a week.

``This man is always cheerful, always helpful,'' says the actor about the man who delivers his meals. ``It's a pleasure to hear him coming, not only for the food but for the niceness of him.''

``It's really a lifeline,'' says Citymeals' Marcia Stein. ``It's their only connection with the outside world.''

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