By Amanda McDougall
The link between chefs and philanthropy is an intimate one Ė food is what sustains the human body after all. But not everyone is fortunate enough to have a regular and adequate supply, especially the elderly. Thatís where Marcia Stein and Citymeals-on-Wheels comes in: they help make the connections between chefs, philanthropy, and getting much-needed food to New York Cityís homebound elderly.
Itís natural that chefs are involved in Citymeals, an organization founded by culinary luminaries Gael Greene and James Beard. Since its inception Citymeals and Executive Director Marcia Stein have been asking New York chefs to donate their time and their food in five annual fundraising events that raise $5 million for Citymeals-on-Wheels.
We talked to Marcia about the history of the organization, their relationship with local chefs, and how chefs and restaurants can join the Citymeals chef-philanthropists.
Amanda McDougall: Tell me about the background of the organization.
Marcia Stein: Citymeals began in 1981 when Gael Greene and Jim Beard, the founders, read that homebound elderly New Yorkers only got meals from the city Monday through Friday, and not on holidays. They were going very long periods of time without food. Especially over the holidays: at times when other people were over-eating, these people were alone and starving.
Gael and Jim called their friends in the industry; Gael called the city government and wrote about it. She was just as good at describing their situation as she is at describing food, and it made people aware. Checks started coming in, but you canít just send a check to the government or the Department for the Aging. We had to create an organization that was a not-for-profit so we could receive the checks we were getting. So Citymeals started as a public/private partnership with the cityís meal delivery program.
We started feeding 6,000 homebound elderly, but the number has grown over time. Now we are feeding 18,000 every weekend and holiday.
We receive about 50,000 contributions a year to Citymeals. Itís a cause that New Yorkers have embraced. Six dollars a day can save a personís life.
AM:Sounds like the organization has been a success.
MS: I think a lot of our success comes from always being very straight with our donors: 100% of all public donations go to meals – right into a designated account exclusively used to purchase food and deliver meals to elderly New Yorkers. Grants go to overhead and administration. Gael said right up front that 100% must go to food, and not to administration.
AM: How did you get involved with Citymeals?
MS: I have been with the organization from the very beginning – when we kept our donation checks in shoeboxes!
When Citymeals started, I was the city’s Bureau Chief in charge of services at the Department for the Aging during the Ed Koch administration. I volunteered to help with Citymeals. I left the city government in 1990, but still served on the board of Citymeals. In 1993, my fellow board members asked me to come back when Citymeals was about to separate from the city.
AM: When did you become Executive Director?
MS: From the start. I had to have a title to write letters, so I said, “okay, I’m going to be the Executive Director.” And then we had to have a name for the organization: “Okay, we’ll name ourselves Citymeals-on-Wheels to distinguish ourselves from Meals-on-Wheels.”
AM: What do you do as Executive Director?
MS: We have a 20 million dollar a year budget; 83 different community agencies that we contract with and manage; volunteers to coordinate; stories and letters to write. And we have to raise a whole lot of money.
AM: You do a lot of work with people in the food industry. Where did this idea come from?
MS: From the time we got that phone call from Gael Greene, it seemed logical that we would work with chefs. Gael and Jim knew a lot of people. Gael couldn’t ask restaurant owners and chefs to contribute because of her job and the conflict of interest. She had to maintain the distance because it couldn’t appear that she was giving a good review because of their contribution to Citymeals. But I could ask them.
We were the first organization to ask the chef to be a philanthropist. Now they are being asked to donate everything. We just ask them for a space in their restaurant and their time; not money. It’s personal thing for many of these chefs who learned to cook at the elbows of their mothers, grandmothers, fathers, and grandfathers. It means a lot to them to feed the elderly. Daniel Boulud goes to a local senior center a few times a year and cooks for them. They love to see him.
AM: What was one of the first events you organized?
MS: When we started chefs were just starting to become rock stars. There were no star chefs back then. Most of these celebrated chefs had never even met each other. Larry Forgione, Jimmy Schmidt, Paul Prudhomme, Wolfgang Puck, Alice Waters, Edna Lewis, Felipe Rojas-Lombardi, Mark Miller, Jonathan Waxman, Jeremiah Tower, Bradley Ogden, Seppi Renggli – the 12 disciples, I call them – all students of Jim Beard. They came together and the first event was to celebrate Jim’s 83rd birthday. Unfortunately, he died just 2 months before the event, and we talked about whether or not we should cancel it. But Jim loved to party and celebrate, and the last thing he would want is for it to be cancelled. Now it’s an annual celebration.
AM: How do chefs participate in your events?
MS: For Corporate Dineout we ask chefs at white-table restaurants to donate one table for six; sometimes we ask for two or tables. We sell tables usually to corporations for $3,000 a piece. Some four star restaurants’ tables we sell for $10,000. They can use these tables anytime during the summer. Last year we had 225 tables in about 150 different restaurants and we raised a million dollars on this program. It’s also wonderful because it brings new people into the restaurants. For Chefs Gone Wild, last year the theme was sustainable foods. Chefs came to the Rock Center and they cooked dishes that had sustainable foods. We had about 35 chefs participate. Many people know us from our special events, but only about $5 million comes from them. Most of our money comes from direct contributions.
AM: How can chefs get involved with Citymeals?
MS: We are reaching out to local restaurants to ask that they open up their restaurants to the elderly on holidays, when they may be alone. Fine dining restaurants can participate in Corporate Dineout, and non-white table restaurants can participate in our Battle of the Bands. We’re developing a new dine-around program that we hope will include many restaurants around the city. A lot of chefs want to cook at the Rock Center [Chefs Gone Wild] event. But because the theme is different each year, we reach out to different chefs based on the theme. We send chefs a letter and they agree to participate. But just email, or call, or write us.
For more information about Citymeals-on-Wheels, please visit them at:
For events firstname.lastname@example.org
355 Lexington Avenue
New York, NY 10017
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