“Access to food is a basic human need and a fundamental right.” —American Dietetic Association

Homeless shelters and soup kitchens – social institutions prevalent in most major cities across the USA – serve as the primary food source for the majority of homeless individuals. While shelters and soup kitchens traditionally serve as safety nets, rather than places to affect health, they have an untapped potential to impact food access, choice, and quality. As such, they offer a concrete target for nutrition interventions for homeless populations.

No standards exist for food served in shelters and soup kitchens. The nutritional quality of food served to homeless individuals in the USA is often of poor nutritional value. Studies have long demonstrated that shelter and soup kitchen meals have a high prevalence of inadequate or imbalanced nutrient, vitamin and mineral content.

Overall, foods provided to homeless individuals through shelter feeding facilities are high in fat, low in fiber, and inadequate in the provision of most nutrients. Study results show that homeless preschool children who are shelter fed receive only 66% of the recommended amount of bread and grains, 25-33% of the recommended amount of vegetables, and the minimum recommended amount of meat and fruit allowances per day. Fruits are primarily canned and in heavy syrup with fresh fruit offering a rarity. Shelter fed children typically receive 8 ounces of 2% milk at each meal, which may reduce the overall composition of nutrients consumed.

Homeless children are at a greater risk for iron-deficiency anemia than their low-income housed counterparts, even when both populations are receiving WIC benefits. Inadequate iron intake in children contributes to cognitive defects and poor development; negative consequences may remain even after iron status is returned to normal.

How to Help the Homeless Eat Healthier

Helping to add something to humanity in lean times, when many can become selfish, is highly commendable. Here’s how to get started making a difference!

Keep a food kit in your car. Most of us don’t have constant access to the homeless community. There might be the same person we drive by or pass on the street, but other than that, it’s totally random. So be ready to help by keeping a food kit in your car. A gallon-sized resealable bag (or two) with non-perishable items is a great way to always be ready.

  • As for non-perishable items, think the basics. Granola bars, canned fruit or vegetables, peanut butter, maybe a candy bar — pretty much anything you can open and eat.
  • Fresh fruit such as apples, bananas, pears etc are somewhat inexpensive. When you go to the grocery store pick up a couple extra pieces of fruit to hand out.

Donate to a food drive. If there’s not one going on at your school or work, find out about what’s happening in your community. Some organizations practically have food drives that run all year long. Check your newspaper, local schools, and other news outlets. 

  • If you can’t find a food drive in your area, there are plenty of other ways to donate food! Contact your local shelters, churches, and coalitions to ask what they need. This is especially useful around the holidays.

Frequent fast food dollar menus. Healthier fare are now quite common at national food chains such as:  

JACK IN THE BOX
  • Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger. $1.97
  • Chicken Sandwich. $1.29
  • Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger. $1.49
  • Big Cheeseburger. $2.49
  • Chicken Sandwich. $1.33
  • 2 regular beef tacos 99 cents
  • Side Salad $1.69

TACO BELL
  • Bean Burrito. $1.29
  • Beefy 5-Layer Burrito. $1.69
  • Spicy Potato Soft Taco. $1.00
  • Cheese Roll-Up. $1.00
  • Chicken Mini Quesadilla. $1.00

McDONALD’S
 
  • McChicken sandwich $1
  • Fruit ‘n Yogurt Parfait $1
  • 2 Cheeseburgers. $2.00
  • Chipotle Grilled Chicken Snack Wrap $1.49
  • Cheeseburger $1.07
  • Side Garden Salads for .99 cents

 

BURGER KING
  • Garden Side Salad $1.99
  • Whopper Jr. $1
  • Hamburger $1.00
  • Cheeseburger.$1.00
  • Crispy Chicken Jr.$1.00
  • Spicy Crispy Chicken Jr. $1.00
  • Milk. $1.49
  • Hash Browns. $1.00

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