Soup Kitchens 101: Who They Serve, Why They’re Important

Whether you’ve volunteered at one, visited one, or lived in a community that supports one, most Americans are familiar with the idea of a soup kitchen. Generally speaking, a soup kitchen is a place where people in need of a warm meal can get one — no matter what their circumstances.


But why are soup kitchens important? Who visits a soup kitchen? What do soup kitchens serve?


Are you curious to learn more about this essential resource? Perhaps you’d like to serve your community by starting or volunteering at one, or maybe you’re in need of food assistance yourself.


If so, you’d certainly not be alone. You’d be part of a diverse group of people that includes anywhere from twelve to twenty-one million Americans who use a soup kitchen or food pantry every year.


What Are Soup Kitchens?


Soup kitchens are operations that supply hot food directly to our most vulnerable people. They are located in pop-ups around town, established buildings, even mobile vans, and organized and operated by dedicated, hard-working people.


Typically, the food at a soup kitchen is offered for free or at an extremely discounted, below-market rate. Most often, soup kitchens are run by a minimal number of staff members and volunteers. They also tend to be run by non-profit organizations, churches, and other community-oriented places in the neighborhood.


Soup kitchens most often serve items that are easily stored in food banks and not perishable. Their standard menu serves items like:

  • Canned fruits or veggies
  • Casseroles
  • Plates of pasta
  • Sandwiches
  • Various desserts
  • Beverages such as tea, coffee, or juices

Depending on the organization’s resources, a soup kitchen may sometimes offer foods donated by private citizens or even caterers or restaurants. Portion sizes tend to be on the smaller end to provide to more people. Soup kitchens typically operate during specific hours and days a week, as opposed to a constant operation. 


While soup kitchens can’t exactly solve the core issue of food insecurity, they’re a temporary and immediate solution to ensuring people don’t go hungry. 


What’s the Difference Between a Soup Kitchen, Food Bank, and Food Pantry?


Soup kitchens are easy to confuse with food banks and food pantries. In general, they have a similar mission: distributing food to those who need it, keeping people nourished, and meeting our neighbors’ needs.


The main difference among the three is their method of distribution and the volume of food they distribute. For example, soup kitchens provide fundamental meals on a community-sized basis.


Food banks are where food is stored before circulation to soup kitchens and other food drives. Food banks can be large or small. Most of the food is donated (and non-perishable, allowing for longer storage times and eliminating food waste). 


Food pantries are agencies, like soup kitchens, that receive food to be donated. Food pantries often operate monthly, giving those in need larger amounts of food to last them up to thirty days. Food pantries can be located anywhere and are often at places like schools to provide easy access.


Who Do Soup Kitchens Serve? 


There are many candidates for a soup kitchen visitor. In general, soup kitchens feed our most vulnerable community members. That includes:

  • Military veterans
  • People without housing
  • Lower-income families
  • Individuals facing food insecurity, like those who’ve recently lost a job

For many people, the meal they have at a soup kitchen will be their only meal of the day.


How Does One Attend a Soup Kitchen? Volunteer at One? Open One?


If you’ve never been to a soup kitchen, you may be wondering how to find and visit or volunteer at one.


There are several methods for finding soup kitchens in your area, but the easiest might be to Google search “soup kitchens near me.” You can also visit a national database of soup kitchens and food pantries, or check with local churches, crisis centers, or other social services that are likely to have a list of nearby resources. 




Soup kitchens are usually open to everyone. They won’t require proof of income or ask questions about the visitor’s situation, but they will expect that visitors be respectful of the operation, the location, and especially other guests and staff.


Volunteers are there because they want to help. Some may talk with their visitors to see if they can offer further assistance or resources. Soup kitchen workers may have additional insight to help those in need, such as information about shelters or clothing drives.




The first step in volunteering is finding one or more soup kitchens convenient to your location. There may be a soup kitchen at your neighborhood school, church, or community center.


Once you have identified a soup kitchen in your area where you might like to volunteer, get in touch with them to ask how you can help. Soup kitchens need volunteers now more than ever, due in large part to the coronavirus, but they may still ask you screening questions and/or require that you go through training before you can pitch in and help.




Nearly 690 million people worldwide went hungry in 2019. Billions of people cannot eat healthy and nutritious meals thanks to low affordability and high food costs.


With this in mind, starting a soup kitchen is a noble cause with wide-ranging positive benefits. Before launching, soup kitchen organizers need to consider things such as:

  • Resources: volunteers, food supply, location, food service policies, etc.
  • Mission: church-based, non-profit (501(c)(3)), other
  • Contacts: mentors, nonprofits, food agencies, etc.

Each of these considerations requires further reflection. For example, when it comes to location, you may consider other soup kitchens in your town as well as whether there are colleges, universities, or other donating entities nearby.


Once the scope of your mission has been determined, you’ll need to market your soup kitchen just like any other business — except this time, you are providing a critical service to your consumers.


A Brief Look at Soup Kitchens Then, Now, and Later


Now that you know more about soup kitchens, we’ll learn when they started, what they look like in the pandemic’s current climate, and what the future might entail.


A History of Soup Kitchens


Soup kitchens can be traced back to the 1920s


They began in 1929 due to the growing depression. Churches and private charities began serving soup to the most vulnerable in the community. Serving soup was an economic decision; because water could be added to it, they were able to distribute even more. 


Since their humble inception, soup kitchens have become more common and accessible as people have continued to establish them across the nation.


Soup Kitchens During COVID: A Difficult Balance


Soup kitchens are facing a challenging task during the coronavirus.


With social distancing guidelines, soup kitchens have had to adjust their operations much like in-person restaurants.


Many kitchens are eliminating dine-in eating and instead serve to-go only. Volunteers might be barred while staff has been reduced. Still, workers are putting in valiant effort to continue serving vulnerable community members.


Where Are Soup Kitchens Headed?


Soup kitchens will continue to operate as we navigate cracks in our society’s foundation (shortage of labor, disruptions to food supply chains, etc.). That’s not to say the journey will be easy.


Like many other businesses and civic operations, soup kitchens are working through extreme challenges and innovating to find a sustainable path forward.


If you want to help, you can consider volunteering, talking to your neighbors about the importance of soup kitchens, continuing to do your part to stay safe if you visit, or, if your circumstances permit, making a cash donation.


Why Are Soup Kitchens Important? Now You Know


There’s no doubt about it: soup kitchens are an essential, integral part of our societies.


They ensure that people in crisis, including those who are houseless, can still have a meal. Families struggling with low incomes are welcome, too. Soup kitchens keep our community members fed, nourished, and connected.


Food gives life, optimism, and health, and soup kitchens make a massive dent in the number of people who go without these needs every day.


If this article about soup kitchens was helpful, you may qualify for free wireless service through the federal Lifeline program. You can check your eligibility now by clicking here.