195652 Being homeless and eating healthy: The role of soup kitchens

Monday, November 9, 2009

Jennifer F. Tsang, MPH , Section of Health Promotion Research, Institute for Health Research and Policy, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, IL
Ben S. Gerber, MD, MPH , Section of Health Promotion Research, Institute for Health Research and Policy, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, IL

Insecurity, lack of control over meal preparation, cost, and access to kitchens are barriers to healthy eating among homeless populations. To better understand how these barriers reflect both individual attitudes and behaviors as well as food source options, we surveyed homeless people and the soup kitchens they attended.


We surveyed 40 homeless individuals regarding food security and attitudes toward nutrition. We also assessed three soup kitchens in Chicago and Evanston to determine their resources and nutritional attitudes. At each soup kitchen, we interviewed a coordinator and observed meals to characterize methods of preparation and service.


Soup kitchen coordinators indicated a desire to satisfy guests by serving “comfort food”, resulting in meals that contained excess salt and fat. They also identified cost as a major barrier to serving healthier food. Among the homeless individuals, 75% ate meals at soup kitchens on a regular basis, 10% believed they are already eating healthy, 50% have access to a kitchen and 45% specified money as a barrier to healthy eating.


Homeless people frequently consume meals in soup kitchens and depend on this food source to survive. Although the cost, storage and preparation of fresh fruit and vegetables are known barriers to improving the nutrition of food served in soup kitchens, volunteer desires of providing “comfort food” increases excessive salt and fat intake. To improve the eating habits of homeless populations, we must address both individual and environmental barriers, including free sources of food in the community.

Learning Objectives:
1. Identify resources and barriers to healthy meal preparation and service in soup kitchens. 2. Describe barriers to food security and healthy eating habits for people who are homeless. 3. List three targeted interventions that may improve the nutritional status of people who are homeless.

Keywords: Homeless, Food and Nutrition

Presenting author's disclosure statement:

Qualified on the content I am responsible for because: I have designed the survey tools and gathered all data related to this project. I have worked with this population for the past 6 years both as a full-time employee and as a volunteer. In the past, I have designed and coordinated federally funded projects and presented related material in a CDC National Broadcast. Currently, I am a fourth year medical student and a Schweitzer Fellow.
Any relevant financial relationships? No

I agree to comply with the American Public Health Association Conflict of Interest and Commercial Support Guidelines, and to disclose to the participants any off-label or experimental uses of a commercial product or service discussed in my presentation.