Beth Shapiro: Executive Director, Citymeals on Wheels

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Bio:

Beth Shapiro has been Executive Director of Citymeals on Wheels since September 2011. Under her leadership, Citymeals launched Chefs Deliver, which takes some of the city’s best chefs out of their kitchens to deliver restaurant quality meals to their frail aged neighbors. Following Hurricane Sandy, she began a strategic budgeting process to enhance the organization’s readiness for emergencies. She also spearheaded efforts to help hundreds of recipients access SNAP benefits. Citymeals has experienced a 28% increase in its number of volunteers and a 61.5% increase in volunteer hours during her tenure. Prior to joining Citymeals, Shapiro worked as a marketing and advertising executive.

How did you get into the nonprofit sector?

After graduating from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, I moved to New York City where I landed an entry-level job with Ogilvy & Mather. Building my career in marketing and advertising both there and elsewhere, I worked on diverse accounts including American Express, Kraft Foods, Dun & Bradstreet, and Warner Bros.

After twenty years, I was looking to make a change and bring my business skills into the nonprofit sector. I wanted to do something positive for the city that had become my home, but many organizations had no desire to hire someone without nonprofit experience. Fortunately, I found an incredibly good fit in Citymeals on Wheels. They’d recently created a new position for a Director of Marketing and Communications. That was in 2006. After five years in that role, I became Executive Director when Marcia Stein, our Founding Executive Director, retired.

Any emerging trends in the field?

The most significant trend for us is the growing size of the elderly population - both across the country and here in New York City. The city is home to more than 1.4 million people over the age of 60. And that senior population is expected to grow 40% by 2040. Because one in ten older New Yorkers already faces hunger, the need for Citymeals will only increase.

Also, the population we serve is living longer – the very oldest of the elderly. While the average age of a recipient is 83, we currently support hundreds of people who are 100 years old or more. The number of centenarians receiving meals will continue to rise.

As people live longer, they want to remain in their own homes and communities. We need to build more services that enable our elderly neighbors to age in place. For some people who are too old to shop or cook for themselves, all they need to keep from entering a nursing home is a daily check-in and a home-delivered meal. Meals on wheels programs can feed someone for an entire year for the same cost as just one day in the hospital. So this is an incredibly cost-effective model of care.

Any opportunities or challenges in the field?

A huge challenge in meeting the demand for home-delivered meals is fundraising – finding the money to provide these vital services for New Yorkers in need. But the growing population of older adults also creates real opportunity. Individuals, foundations and companies who choose to connect with this community and understand their needs, can truly expand business.

Also, our meals are not a one-size fits all solution. New York City is as diverse as any place in the world – that’s part of what makes the city great. We need to cater to that diversity and provide meals a wide variety of older people want to eat – including those with different medical and dietary needs. That’s a challenge we need to answer.

Inspiration for the organization, and your vision for the programs?

Citymeals was co-founded by restaurant critic Gael Greene and cookbook author James Beard nearly 37 years ago. Gael read an article in the New York Times describing how older New Yorkers would go days without food over the long Thanksgiving weekend because the city didn’t fund home-delivered meals on weekends and holidays. Together, she and James raised enough to deliver 6,000 meals to frail aged New Yorkers that Christmas. Since then, Citymeals has delivered 58 million meals throughout every borough and neighborhood in New York City.

And like Gael, I cannot accept the idea of someone going without a meal on a holiday or having nothing in their cupboards over the weekend.

I’ve been Executive Director for Citymeals for seven years and my vision is one of a work environment and culture that is purposeful, with team members who are not only passionate about our mission, but respectful of each other and the people we nourish. I believe this helps drive work that answers the needs of our recipients. My overarching vision is to ensure every older New Yorker who needs a meal has at least one every day – and one they will enjoy.

What's next for the programs in the near future?

We need to take a holistic look at the meals on wheels system across the city. Only then can we maximize resources and efficiency. Citymeals works in public-private partnership with the New York City Department for the Aging which enables us to leverage the existing network of 30 senior centers across the city. But it is a system that has not been adequately invested in. All of us are struggling to prepare for the growth that’s on our doorsteps. By unifying best practices, exploring group purchasing and further leveraging the network as a whole, we could decrease expenses and increase nutritional services for the city’s senior population.

Your key initiatives for the success of the organization?

I’m excited about the growth of our Mobile Food Pantry program, which provides additional food for Citymeals recipients at risk for malnutrition. We tapped into existing community resources and developed new partnerships with food pantries and volunteer organizations in key neighborhoods to deliver more nutritious food to our most vulnerable recipients – that’s terrific.

We’ve also expanded our Chefs Deliver program, founded by Citymeals Board Co-President Daniel Boulud and Board Member Charlie Palmer. It gives chefs the opportunity to prepare and personally deliver a special meal to Citymeals recipients, who are too old and frail to step out for a bite to eat at one of the City’s many amazing restaurants. This program has served more than 7,000 meals and brings tremendous pleasure to our recipients.

Citymeals is also partnering with Columbia University’s College of Dental Medicine on a new research study looking at oral health complications among meal recipients. The goal is to evaluate the possibility of modifying meals to make them easier to eat for those recipients with trouble chewing and swallowing. It will be some time before we have results, but I’m excited about the possibility of better serving our clients.

Your most difficult moment professionally? (and what did you learn?)

Without question this would be Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Yet, it also became my proudest moment. In the days leading up to the hurricane and directly in its aftermath, Citymeals delivered more than 64,000 emergency meals to elderly New Yorkers. While most went to our regular recipients, thousands were directed to seniors who were situationally homebound – those trapped due to loss of power, no working elevators and other issues. We enlisted over 800 volunteers who climbed dozens of flights of stairs in the dark to knock on doors, check on people and deliver meals. I have been accused at times of seeing the world through rose-colored glasses, but I really do believe in positivity and seeing the good in people. Hurricane Sandy brought together strangers from all walks of life to support each other and to support Citymeals. It was proof of humanity at its best.

Citymeals’ response to Hurricane Sandy illustrated the importance of our role in the city. The primary responder for the city’s senior population during emergencies, we’ve continued to strengthen our capacity to respond in a crisis. This has meant increasing the amount of nonperishable food we have in our warehouse at all times, including over 1,000 boxes packed with shelf-stable meals that are ready to deliver at a moment’s notice.

Ideal experience for a meal recipient?

The homebound elderly Citymeals serves rely on the meals we bring to the door. But most of them, also,  live alone. In fact, nearly ten percent of our meal recipients have no one to talk with on a regular basis – except for their meal deliverer. For them, the daily knock on the door becomes a lifeline to the outside world. A nourishing meal. A warm smile. A simple conversation. These small gestures have a big impact.

Sometimes our staff and volunteers are called upon to do even more. Every year there are cases when a meal deliver discovers a recipient in an emergency situation. By responding quickly, we are able to save lives.

How do you motivate others?

I believe motivation needs to come from within. So the real trick for a manager is sparking that desire for self-motivation. One way to achieve that goal is by establishing an environment that encourages individuals to do their best work - and then recognizes them for accomplishing that. Citymeals began as a bootstraps operation, a start-up really, nearly 37 years ago. We’ve been through many chapters of growth and have built a solid foundation. It’s important we now also focus on supporting those who have enabled this success, providing them with their own growth opportunities and giving them additional opportunities within the organization that are of interest.

Career advice to those in your industry?

Be true to yourself and strive to do the work you know is excellent – this will breed success. Find mentors and, equally important, find mentees. Even among those working at your level, there are people who can benefit from your knowledge and you will benefit from theirs as well. Also, you don’t always have to be on top. It’s good to start from the bottom and work your way up. There’s so much knowledge to be gained going up the ladder, crossing departments and going outside of your comfort zone to build a more rounded business self and to be more desirable to organizations.