Uneaten and Trashed: How New York Wasted 5,000 Migrant Meals in One Day

New York City is paying tens of thousands of dollars a month for meals that are supposed to go to feed migrants but instead are never eaten and are thrown away, according to internal company records reviewed by The New York Times.

The meals are provided by DocGo, a medical services company that won a no-bid, $432 million contract from the city to provide broad migrant care, despite having had no experience in doing so.

DocGo receives up to $33 a day per migrant for providing three meals a day for each of the roughly 4,000 migrants in its care. From Oct. 22 to Nov. 10, more than 70,000 meals were recorded by DocGo as being “wasted,” according to internal company records obtained by The Times.

At $11 a meal, the maximum rate allowed by the contract, the wasted food for that 20-day period would cost taxpayers about $776,000, or about $39,000 a day. At that rate, the bill for the tossed food would exceed $1 million a month — just as Mayor Eric Adams is making billions of dollars in budget cuts to help pay for the city’s spending on migrant care.

The food waste is the latest issue to emerge related to DocGo’s care of migrants. This summer, the state attorney general began investigating the company over accusations it had mistreated migrants, among other issues.

This internal chart compiled by DocGo, which is being paid millions by New York City to house and feed migrants, shows 70,000 meals were wasted in a 20-day period in late October and early November of 2023.Credit…The New York Times

A spokesman for the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which oversees the $432 million DocGo contract, said the company has recently began ordering fewer meals to reduce waste as part of the agency’s effort to trim $66 million from the program by the end of next year.

City officials say DocGo has lowered its average per-meal price to $7.82. At the rate of wasted meals reflected in DocGo documents, that would work out to about $28,000 in wasted food each day, or about $800,000 a month.

City Councilwoman Gale Brewer, who leads the Committee on Oversight and Investigations, said it was offensive that migrant meals were going into the dumpster at a time when libraries, schools and trash collection services are slated for steep budget reductions.

“It is very expensive for the taxpayer,” Ms. Brewer said, adding, “We’re asking for cuts while we are wasting food.”

DocGo officials have not been accused of wrongdoing, and there is no suggestion that the company is intentionally overbilling the city for uneaten meals. Its contract stipulates that food costs are to be treated as a so-called pass-through expense to the city with no profit going to the company.

Company officials have downplayed the complaints, saying that reporters had focused on a few unhappy “guests” — the word DocGo uses for the migrants in its care — and is ignoring an otherwise good track record shown ininternal company surveys.

Some food waste might be unavoidable. Many migrants are not around when meals are served, especially during the day when they might be working or seeking work, and many cook for themselves in their hotel rooms.

But the underlying problem seems to be the food itself. Some migrants have said they got sick after eating the meals; others have reported quality issues such as mold.

DocGo officials have been aware of longstanding issues surrounding the quality of the food, but any attempt to improve it has not seemed to have had much effect: On a single day, Nov. 6, more than 5,000 meals were discarded, the records show.

City officials and DocGo did not challenge the authenticity of the company’s internal documents tracking the food waste that The Times obtained. But they asserted without offering any evidence that 93 percent of the food the company serves to migrants is being consumed.

“The data presented by The New York Times is once again taken out of context and is not accurate,” Rob Ford, a DocGo spokesman, said in a statement. “DocGo continually monitors food consumption and works to proactively identify opportunities for savings on behalf of N.Y.C.”

Yet DocGo’s internal database, covering its hotels in and around New York City, the Hudson Valley, the state capital region and Western New York, contained very specific accounts of how thousands of uneaten meals were being thrown away.

“24 Chicken Alfredo & 24 Spaghetti Chicken Dinner Wasted From Friday,” says one recent shift report from a hotel in Western New York. Another report reviewed by The Times called it a “normal night” when 110 dinner meals — at a hotel with a reported total population of about 230 — were trashed at the Holiday Inn in downtown Albany on Nov. 12.

A DocGo supervisor at the Brooklyn Vybe Hotel, which records say houses about 200 migrants, wrote in an Oct. 31 shift report that 184 meals were wasted at lunch alone.

The supervisor nevertheless checked the “Yes” box when answering whether the migrants enjoyed the food — a common response from supervisors despite vast evidence to the contrary, including their own written observations.

At the Red Roof Plus in suburban Buffalo, a DocGo supervisor wrote in her notes in an Oct. 24 shift report that the migrants “dislike the food strongly.”

“Clients angry and claim that the food has mold and is making them sick,” she wrote, even as she checked the “Yes” box on whether the migrants enjoyed the food. The box was similarly marked by a supervisor at a Quality Inn in Buffalo, where she noted that 74 meals were thrown away, including 20 breakfast sandwiches, 26 beef enchiladas and eight veggie trays.

This past summer, The Times visited the Ramada Plaza in Albany, where migrants living there complained about their treatment and the food. Some of them followed up with more complaints and evidence that food was being wasted. Two former DocGo subcontractors also told The Times that they saw uneaten meals being tossed regularly at hotels in Albany.

“The first day I ate this food they had to take me to the hospital,” said Rodney, 38, a migrant from Port-au-Prince, Haiti. As he spoke he was wearing a special belt around his stomach that he says helps him cope with the horrible gas the food gives him.

A Venezuelan migrant filmed what he said were boxes of food being thrown into the dumpster at the Ramada, where records show about 180 migrants have been staying for the last few months.

“Look how they’re throwing out the food, because nobody eats it,” the migrant says in Spanish on the video. “This food is pure trash.”

The Times has identified the migrants by their given names only, or has allowed them to comment anonymously, out of concern that disclosing their full names could jeopardize their status or cause them harm.

Food waste was practically a side note at the run-down Super 8 in Schenectady County on Oct. 23, when a supervisor reported to DocGo that the “hotel has a lot of issues, such as a lot of bedbugs, broken door locks,” a need “to be clean more often” and a security camera that is “really spotty.”

The supervisor seemed to celebrate the fact that just 10 out of 75 halal meals were thrown out, though dozens of uneaten “Latina” meals brought the total number of wasted lunches to 80 that day.

In many instances, the migrants are finding ways to cook their own food in their rooms, records and interviews indicate.

“Almost every single resident has cooking appliances in their rooms,” the supervisor at the Red Roof Plus near Buffalo wrote in late October.

In response to an outcry about the food, DocGo officials vowed to make improvements. In mid-August, the company’s chief executive at the time, Anthony Capone, promised that DocGo would introduce new options, including Halal food for Muslim migrants and offerings that its heavily Hispanic population would appreciate.

“The food vendors that they would like are the ones that they are now going to get on a daily basis,” Mr. Capone told WNYT in Albany.

Soon local vendors were serving food that migrants loved. One of the new providers was Empanada Llama, a Peruvian restaurant that served Latino-oriented dishes in a buffet-style setting.

“They said: ‘You bring homemade food. This is so good,’” the restaurant co-owner, Maria Lloyd, recalled the migrants telling her.

But then she said DocGo asked her to produce labels with calorie counts and nutritional content, and to put the meals into individual containers. Although the catering business was a godsend in a city whose restaurants are still trying to recover from the coronavirus pandemic downturn, Ms. Lloyd, who had been serving the food for only a few weeks, decided it wasn’t worth the hassle and quit.

It was around the same time that Mr. Capone abruptly resigned after acknowledging that he had falsely claimed an A.I.-related graduate degree on his résumé.

Susan Beachy contributed research.

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