Project Bento volunteers deliver bento to senior New Yorkers

During the spring of 2020 when New York City was the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, residents were abruptly instructed to shelter-in-place. Susan Miyagi McCormac, a vice president and secretary of the Japanese American Association of New York, became concerned about how their older members were faring.

Pre-COVID, about 100 Japanese and Japanese American seniors participated in JAA’s Keiro Kai, a biweekly gathering at the 113-year-old service organization’s location in Midtown Manhattan to meet with friends while enjoying entertainment, learning various topics and chatting over a Japanese meal. Suddenly, this regular outing was taken from their lives, and along with it, the chance to converse in Japanese, share familiar foods and spend time with others.

After brainstorming with friends about how to help JAA’s seniors, McCormac contacted Erina Yoshida, the chief operating officer of the Yoshida Restaurant Group. Yoshida was willing to donate bento from Sunrise Mart, her family’s four-location Japanese grocery store chain.

After getting the go-ahead from JAA to have these bento delivered by volunteers, Project Bento launched on May 4.

“We put it together fairly quickly, considering I think it was mid-April when we first talked about it,” McCormac said.

Coping With Isolation

Project Bento steering committee member Suki Terada Ports, Japanese American Association of New York President Susan Onuma, Japan Society President Joshua Walker, Project Bento architect Susan McCormac, JAA-NY Executive Director Michiyo Noda, and volunteers Hikaru Aono and Mari Morimoto. photo by Yuki Kane

The weekly bento delivery started with about 80 recipients; 75 of them JAA members. They made deliveries on Mondays to seniors and others homebound in Manhattan and the Bronx and Thursdays to those in Queens and Brooklyn. Word of mouth and coverage in Japanese-language newspapers helped to expand the number of seniors the group served to its current list of approximately 175 recipients.

Since the city was on lockdown, volunteers were instructed to avoid public transportation in the early days and made deliveries using their own vehicles, bicycles or by walking. Volunteers were largely members of JAA and other Japanese and Japanese American groups.

In the early days of Project Bento, many seniors were not doing well. Even those without health issues were “so afraid even just (to) take one step out of their apartment,” said Tomiko Yazawa, a volunteer who delivers bento in her Manhattan neighborhood.

Jen Green, a volunteer in South Brooklyn, noted the isolation seniors were facing, as the majority of those she and Yazawa deliver to live alone. “I feel that in the beginning, I might have been the only person she was seeing during the week,” Green said of the woman who inspired her to join the project, when she found out they lived on the same block.

Like Green, Yazawa also discovered that Japanese seniors lived on her street. Five, in fact. She was surprised to learn that one participant, Yoshiko Nagai, lived in her own building. Nagai thought it was “a nice surprise” when she realized this. She had been a regular participant in the Keiro Kai senior luncheon meetings until they stopped taking place in February.

The subsequent lockdown also made Japanese food hard to come by. “I have been very careful to comply with ‘Stay Home’ rules,” Nagai said. “Because of that, it has been difficult to go to Japanese grocery stores where mass transit is required. It was a great help to me at that time to receive a Japanese obento once a week.” She expressed her appreciation for the volunteers who joined this project during the height of the pandemic, despite the threat to their personal health.

Like Nagai, other seniors have reacted with a mix of appreciation, relief and happiness to their bento deliveries. “The one woman in my neighborhood alone, from day one she was so excited,” Green said. “She was almost hugging the bag, saying, ‘I’ve missed this,’ meaning real Japanese food.” Green said another woman split her bento into two portions so that she could enjoy it again the next day.

“One time, one of my seniors met me at the door and he already had his chopsticks in his hand,” Green said. “I loved that. That made my day.”

Check-in Phone Calls
Besides the delivery volunteers, phone volunteers have also been a part of Project Bento from the beginning. Volunteers call seniors weekly to make sure that they are doing OK and to give them a chance to have a conversation in Japanese.

Yazawa recruited several Japanese-speaking friends to make “Ogenki desu ka” (How are you?) calls every Saturday. “They do this amazing spreadsheet where they list what they talked about,” McCormac said of Yazawa’s team of eight or nine ladies who regularly check in with 50 seniors a week. “She just kind of expanded on our concept and got more people involved.” Yazawa also spends at least 10 minutes talking with participants during each of her deliveries.

Over the past few months, Project Bento has evolved in some tasty directions. In addition to Sunrise Mart’s partnership, Queens’ BentOn soon joined the effort, providing bento at cost. Other Japanese restaurants followed, contributing bento as delicious as they are beautiful in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. A strong supporter from the start was Ambassador and Consul General of Japan in New York Kanji Yamanouchi and his wife Yukiko, who provided bento specially prepared by the ambassador’s chefs, along with a note to Japanese residents of the Isabella Center in Northern Manhattan. More recently, the Japan Society helped participants celebrate Doyo no Ushi no Hi (Midsummer Day of the Ox) by donating unagi bento prepared by BentOn.

Yoshiko Nagai, left, with Project Bento volunteer Tomiko Yazawa in front of their apartment building in Manhattan.
photo courtesy of Tomiko Yazawa

The weekly bento drop-offs and check-in calls have allowed seniors and volunteers to feel connected with each other.

“Some people, they have really good relationships with their seniors now,” McCormac said. She said a woman who is homebound has a volunteer that lives in her complex. He has picked up her groceries and checks in to see if she is doing

OK. “They call each other almost every day and talk,” McCormac said. “And that’s going to continue on after the deliveries (end).” She is also moved by the high school sophomore who delivers bento on the Upper East Side, who now says one of his seniors is like a grandmother to him.

Green and Yazawa have also forged relationships with the participants on their routes. The same man who was ready with his chopsticks one day recently greeted Green with a beautiful Japanese orchid and confided in her about his gardening hobby. Yazawa enjoys the conversations she has with Nagai outside of their building during each of her deliveries. She noted Nagai’s thoughtful gesture of always bringing down cold tea for her, which she appreciates, as temperatures have risen during her summer-month deliveries.

As New York City has slowly started to open up again, Project Bento has adapted its outreach. Many volunteers who were working from home have now started to return to the office, which has resulted in deliveries being reduced to every other week.

McCormac hopes that the check-in calls will continue after the pandemic subsides, while Yazawa longs for the day when she can actually meet the seniors she has only known over the phone.  “So hopefully I can see them in person, face-to-face,” Yazawa said. “That’s what all my volunteers, eight, nine Japanese ladies say that.”

Green notes the connection that she has with the senior living on her block, bonding over shared interests in jewelry making and sewing. This woman hopes that Green might help her with her sewing machine once it is safe to have people over again. “So we might have a sewing date in the future,” Green said.

While Project Bento came together to help alleviate some of the isolation seniors may have been experiencing during the pandemic, it has also had a strong impact on its volunteers.

Yazawa, who has volunteered with JAA for the past 15 years, said this has been her favorite project and that it embodies the “meaning of community” for her. Green speaks about the project with equal passion. “Honestly, it’s been the best thing I’ve done in lockdown,” she says. “I look forward to Thursdays. I need this for my soul. It’s been great.”

To donate to Project Bento, visit jaany.org or www.gofundme.com/f/project-bento.

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