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.
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.
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.
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.