Soup Kitchens

views updated


SOUP KITCHENS. Soup kitchens have been providing nourishment to the poor and hungry since at least the eighteenth century. Though no longer serving solely a fare of soup and bread, they remain an important component of private food relief three centuries later. Patterned after soup societies in Europe, soup kitchens had their genesis in the work of Count Rumford who sought to create a low-cost, nutritionally sound diet for the Bavarian military. He found that the cheapest, most savory, and nourishing food was a soup composed of pearl barley, peas, potatoes, cuttings of fine wheaten bread, vinegar, salt, and water in certain proportions. (He also made a culinary discovery: the crouton.)

Rumford's soups became famous throughout Europe. Originally they were used to feed the military but soon soup houses were established throughout Europe, England and the United States to feed the poor. In London, as many as sixty thousand people were fed daily from Rumford's soup kitchens. The Humane Society of New York City founded one of the earliest soup kitchens in the United States in 1802. Typical of soup kitchens in its day, the Society printed soup tickets that both public and private organizations purchased and distributed to the poor.

Soup kitchens lost their popularity by the 1820s as civic leaders and charity reformers began to believe that indiscriminate handouts encouraged pauperism by destroying self-reliance. New emphasis was placed on reforming the moral character of the poor rather than on feeding them or providing other material needs. As a result only a small number of soup kitchens continued, often only on a temporary basis during unusually harsh economic times. One notable exception to this trend was the Salvation Army's food depots or soup kitchens, which remained in continuous operation after the organization was established in England in the late 1800s.

It was not until the Great Depression that there was resurgence in soup kitchens. Along with breadlines, soup kitchens became a daily part of the life of millions during the 1930s. They were immortalized in numerous poems, songs, and stories. Their heyday, however, waned as government income support and food assistance programs were established. In the early 1980s, when numerous reports of increased hunger surfaced, soup kitchens once again opened in large numbers.

Soup kitchens have become an integral part of a larger, ongoing, emergency food and hunger network. Known as emergency food relief (EFR) programs, soup kitchens and food pantries dominate the private sectors effort to feed the hungry. Soup kitchens usually prepare and serve meals on-site to individuals and families, while food pantries provide a package of several days worth of food for home preparation. It is estimated that between twelve and twenty-one million people each year rely on soup kitchens and food pantries. Second Harvest, the largest private food distribution program, is a national network of two hundred regional food banks providing food to more than 94,000 local soup kitchens, food pantries, and other food programs throughout the United States.

The modern soup kitchen meals are typically free and unlike public food assistance programs often do not have income or other eligibility requirements. The majority of soup kitchens are affiliated with larger nonprofit organizations, most often that of churches, which usually supply the facility and equipment, financial resources, food and volunteers to staff the operation. Additional resources, most often in the form of food, are obtained from the local food bank, government commodity distribution programs, community retail outlets, and community food drives. Many soup kitchens extend their assistance beyond feeding to include such services as information and referral to other social assistance programs.

Soup kitchens are usually opened on weekdays, typically serving lunch or dinner, but rarely both. They serve a diverse group of people, including homeless, unemployed, working poor, public assistance recipients, elderly, and people with health problems and disabilities. People often rely on these programs as a daily source of nourishment for many months, even sometimes several years. The limited information concerning the nutritional status of people relying of soup kitchens indicates that many frequently experience hunger despite their use of soup kitchens. Often the soup kitchen meal is their only daily meal.

Unlike in the past, soup kitchens serve a variety of meals often consisting of sandwiches or such casserole dishes as stews, tuna noodle casserole, macaroni and cheese and pasta with tomato sauce. Beverages most often served are coffee, tea and fruit drinks. If fruit or vegetables are offered, they are most often canned and rarely is fresh produce served. Desserts are often served and typically comprise cakes, cookies, donuts and pies. The scarce research on the nutritional quality of soup kitchens meals indicates that the vitamin and mineral content of meals varies widely among kitchens and that several nutrients may be consistently below recommended guidelines. The nutrients most often found lacking are calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12. In addition, riboflavin and iron may be inadequate for women of childbearing age. Foods from the dairy group and in particular milk, all excellent sources of vitamin D, calcium, and riboflavin, are rarely served in soup kitchens. Dark green leafy vegetables, such as spinach or kale, rich in folate and vitamin B6, are rarely served. And a full portion of meat, an excellent source of iron and vitamin B12, is rarely served. Meats are most often served in small portions in casseroles. Meals may also be high in fat and sodium as they serve highly processed and canned foods.

Throughout their history soup kitchens and other emergency feeding programs have frequently been met with opposition. In the early years, critics claimed that soup kitchens encouraged pauperism and contributed to the moral decay of individuals. Contemporary critics claim that, at best, soup kitchens provide a short-term band-aid remedy to hunger but do not get at the root causes of hunger such as poverty, low wages, and affordable housing. Many soup kitchen supporters concede that their approach may offer only a short-term response to hunger, but they argue it plays a vital role in trying to meet immediate food needs of the poor.

See also Class, Social ; Food Stamps ; Poverty ; School Meals ; Soup ; WIC (Women, Infants, and Children's) Program .


Carrillo, Teresita E., Judith A. Gilbride, and Mabel M. Chan. "Soup Kitchen Meals: An Observation and Nutrient Analysis." Journal of the American Dietetic Association, vol. 90, no. 7 (July 1990): 989-992.

Second Harvest. Hunger:The Faces and Facts. Chicago: Second Harvest, 1998.

Morris, Patricia McGrath. "An Evaluation of the Nutritional Quality of Meals Served in Soup Kitchens in New York State and an Examination of the Factors that Determine Quality." Master's Thesis, Cornell University, 1988.

Patricia McGrath Morris

I'm spending my nights at the flop-house,
I'm spending my days on the street,
I'm looking for work, and I find none,
I wish I had something to eat.
Soup, soup, they give me a bowl
of soup, soup, soup. They give
me a bowl of soup.

Depression-era song (1930s)

Profile of Count Rumford

Count Rumford, who was responsible for popularizing soup kitchens, is also credited with the invention of the cooking range, double boiler, and drip coffee pot, among other items now commonplace in the kitchen. Born Benjamin Thompson in Woburn, Massachusetts in 1753, he was a loyalist during the American Revolution and immigrated to Europe after independence. Leopold of Bavaria commissioned him to build an efficient and disciplined Bavarian Army. As part of his effort, Thompson discovered that by enclosing a cook fireplace it could cook food faster and more evenly. This invention became known as the kitchen range. He also invented cooking pots and pans to prepare large quantity meals. Prior to these inventions, each soldier was allotted a certain amount of food that he had to cook over a small fire for himself. For his work, the Bavarian government gave Thompson the title Count Rumford.

Salvation Army's Soup Kettle

The soup kettle tended by a volunteer ringing a bell is a well-known symbol of the Salvation Army visible at Christmas time. Legend credits the origin of this practice to an incident in December 1894. Survivors of a shipwreck near San Francisco had been taken to a nearby Salvation Army post. Seeing that the soup was almost gone, a volunteer took the huge black soup kettle from the kitchen and affixed a sign to it that read: "Keep this kettle boiling." She then placed the kettle and sign on a street corner and stood by it ringing a bell to attract people. Within a short time passers-by tossed in enough money to buy plenty of food for the victims of the shipwreck. Ever since, Army volunteers have rung bells and stood by kettles.