What Is a Soup Kitchen?

Mary McMahon

A soup kitchen is an establishment which offers meals to the needy for free or at very low cost. These places can be found catering to the poor and needy all over the world, and many also offer a variety of other support services to their patrons. In many instances, visitors do not need to meet any eligibility requirements, with meals being offered to all without question.

Homeless people often turn to soup kitchens for sustenance.
Homeless people often turn to soup kitchens for sustenance.

The soup kitchen concept dates to the 1700s, when religious charities first began providing the poor in their districts with free, highly nutritious food which often took the form of soup and bread. In the 1800s, the concept spread widely, with many kitchens generating tickets which could be purchased by charities and distributed through their offices and agents. In the mid-1800s, these kitchens experienced a decline, due to changing ideas about poverty and welfare, but with the Great Depression, the concept was revived, and popularized enough that it became a permanent part of society.

Some soup kitchens focus efforts on women and children.
Some soup kitchens focus efforts on women and children.

Typically, a soup kitchen is run and staffed by volunteers who cook the food, serve it, and clean up. In some cases, charities actively encourage the patrons to pitch in with food preparation or cleanup. Typically, local food banks and grocers support the soup kitchen with donations or low prices for food, recognizing the charitable role of the establishment, and donations from the community may also help to keep the soup kitchen running.

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Religious charities often support these establishments, and soup kitchens can also be associated with other charities for the homeless, poor, or needy. In some cases, patrons may be asked to sit through a brief educational lecture or reading in return for receiving free food, while in other instances, no obligations are placed upon visitors, although information about social programs is available to those who ask.

Many establishments welcome volunteers and donations, and they are popular community service opportunities in many regions of the world. Many also team up with organizations which offer medical care, psychological counseling, and other services to the homeless, encouraging the homeless to come for a meal and stay for the help. By pairing such services with a distribution of food, soup kitchens can help to ensure that people who might otherwise slip through the cracks have access to services they might find useful.

Soup kitchens run on donations of canned goods and other food.
Soup kitchens run on donations of canned goods and other food.

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Discussion Comments


Working in soup kitchens is very rewarding. The first time I ever worked in a soup kitchen was with my parents when I was about 20. My Parents lived in North Carolina and I lived in Vermont. I went to their house for a family thanksgiving. We decided to do our thanksgiving dinner a day early so that we could serve food at a local homeless shelter on Thanksgiving Day. We spent about six hours preparing food, frying turkeys, and giving out to-go containers. It was a great idea, and I slept really well that night because I felt like I did something good.

Now I try to help the local homeless shelter where I live. A couple times a year, I help the shelter pack bags of food and bagged lunches for the people at the shelter and local families. Whether it’s a thanksgiving soup kitchen or helping at a food shelter, giving my time helps me feel good.


@ FrameMaker- Volunteering your time at a soup kitchen for the homeless is easy. You can turn to your local church or food bank to find out where the soup kitchens are and whom you should get in contact with. You also do not need to know how to cook to work in one of these places. Simply serving people and offering a few nice words and a smile will go a long way. Your personality and time are worth just as much, if not more than your cooking abilities.

Volunteering is great, especially during this holiday season when there are more people in need of assistance than ever. Even if you cannot volunteer, giving a little to a charity or donating food to a food bank is equally as noble.


How do I volunteer in a soup kitchen? I have time off from classes for the holidays, and I thought it would be a good idea to donate some of my time to help people in need. I have never done anything like this before so I do not know how to volunteer, where to find soup kitchens, or what is required. I am not a good cook, but I can serve food and offer my time. Where should I look for these types of volunteer opportunities?

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