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Soup kitchen


Soup kitchen

A soup kitchen in Montreal, Canada in 1931.

A soup kitchen, meal center or food kitchen is a place where charity, which makes it easier for them to feed the many people who require their services.

Many historical and some modern soup kitchens serve only soup with perhaps some bread. But several establishments which title themselves as a "soup kitchen" also serve other types of food, so social scientists sometimes discuss them together with similar hunger relief agencies that provide more varied hot meals, like food kitchens and meal centres.

While societies have been using various methods to share food with the hungry for millennia, the first soup kitchens in the modern sense may have emerged in the late 18th century. By the late 19th century they were to be found in several American and European cities. In the United States and elsewhere, they became more prominent in the 20th century during the Great Depression. With the improved economic conditions that followed World War II, soup kitchens became less widely used, at least in the advanced economies. In the United States there was a resurgence in the use of soup kitchens following the cutbacks in welfare that were implemented in the early 1980s.

In the 21st century, the use of soup kitchens expanded in both the United States and Europe, following the lasting global inflation in the price of food which began in late 2006. Demand for their services grew as the Great Recession began to worsen economic conditions for those on low income. In much of Europe, demand further increased after the introduction of austerity-based economic policies from 2010.


  • History 1
    • Emergence of the modern soup kitchen 1.1
    • Spread to the United States 1.2
  • In the 21st century 2
    • World's largest soup kitchen 2.1
    • Comparison with front line food banks and pantries 2.2
  • See also 3
  • Notes and references 4
  • Further reading 5
  • External links 6


The earliest occurrences of soup kitchens are difficult to identify. Throughout history, societies have invariably recognised a moral obligation to feed the hungry. The philosopher Simone Weil wrote that feeding the hungry when one has resources to do so is the most obvious obligation of all, and that as far back as Ancient Egypt, it was believed that people needed to show they had helped the hungry in order to justify themselves in the afterlife.[1] Soup has long been one of the most economical and simple ways to supply nutritious food to large numbers of people.[2][3]

Social historian Redistribution, Reciprocity and Autarky, society's overall level of food security would typically rise. But food insecurity could become worse for the poorest section of society, and the need arose for more formal methods for providing them with food.[4] Christian churches traditionally provided food for the hungry since Late antiquity, with the nourishment mainly provided in the form of soup.

Emergence of the modern soup kitchen

Sir Benjamin Thompson, painted by Thomas Gainsborough, 1783.

The earliest modern soup kitchens were established by the inventor Sir Benjamin Thompson, who was employed as an aide-de-camp to the Elector of Bavaria in the 1790s. The Count was a prominent advocate of hunger relief, writing pamphlets that were widely read across Europe.

His message was especially well received in England, where he had previously held a senior government position for several years and was known as "the Colonel". An urgent need had recently arisen in Britain for food relief, due to its leading role in driving the Industrial Revolution. While technological development and economic reforms were rapidly increasingly overall prosperity, conditions for the poorest were often made worse, as traditional ways of life were disrupted. In the closing years of the 18th century, soup kitchens run on the principles pioneered by Rumford were to be found throughout England and Scotland, with about 60,000 people being fed by them daily in London alone.[2][5][6]

While soup kitchens were generally well regarded, they did attract criticism from some, for encouraging dependency, and sometimes on a local level for attracting vagrants to an area. In Britain they were made illegal, along with other forms of aid apart from workhouses, by the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834.[7]

During the Irish famine of the 19th century, in which as many as 1 million people may have died, the British government passed the Temporary Relief Act (also known as the Soup Kitchen Act) in February 1847. The Act amended the restrictions on the provision of aid outside the workhouses for the duration of the famine, and expressly allowed the establishment of soup kitchens in Ireland to relieve pressure from the overstretched Poor Law system, which was proving to be totally inadequate in coping with the disaster.[8][9]

Prohibition against soup kitchens was soon relaxed, but they never again became as prevalent on mainland Britain as they had been in the early 19th century, partly as from the 1850s onwards, economic conditions generally began to improve even for the poorest. For the first few decades after the return of soup kitchens to mainland Britain, they were at first heavily regulated, run by groups like the Bart Kennedy would criticize them for their long queues, and for the degrading questions staff would ask the hungry before giving out any soup.[2][4][10]

Spread to the United States

Chilean women preparing soup kitchen meals in 1932.

The concept of soup kitchens spread to the Almshouses favored by the charitable societies.[12]

It is believed the term “breadline” entered the popular lexicon in the 1880s. It was during those years that a noteworthy bakery in New York City’s Greenwich Village, “Fleischmann Model Viennese Bakery,” instituted a policy of distributing unsold baked goods to the poor at the end of their business day.[13] By the late 19th century soup kitchens were to be found in several US cities.[5][10] The concept of soup kitchens hit the mainstream of United States consciousness during the Great Depression. One soup kitchen in Chicago was even sponsored by American mobster Al Capone in an effort to clean up his image.[14]

With the improved economic conditions that followed WWII, there was less need for soup kitchens in advanced economies.[15] However, with the scaling back of welfare provision in the 1980s under

  • Media related to at Wikimedia Commons

External links

  • Glasser, Irene (2004). "Soup kitchens". In David Levinson. Encyclopedia of Homelessness.  

Further reading

  1. ^  
  2. ^ a b c Victoria R. Rumble (2009). "Chpt 29, Soup Kitchens". Soup Through the Ages. McFarland,.  
  3. ^ Pat Thane (30 April 2011). "There Has Always Been a ‘Big Society’". Retrieved 9 February 2013. 
  4. ^ a b  
  5. ^ a b Lisa Bramen (29 December 2010). "Count Rumford and the History of the Soup Kitchen".  
  6. ^ "The Shadow Behind Our Founding Fathers: A traitor, a scientist, a womanizer and an enigma" review of Nicholas Delbanco's The Count of Concord Book World p. 9, 22 June 2008, The Washington Post.
  7. ^ Note that criticism of soup kitchens was only a minor driver of the 1834 law - the move was driven more by free market ideology and discontent with other forms of "outdoor" aid like the much more widely disliked Speemhanland system, see Hunger in the United Kingdom.
  8. ^ a b c Gwendolyn Mink and Alice O'Connor (2004). Poverty in the United States.  
  9. ^ Campbell Bartoletti, Susan (2001). Black potatoes: the story of the great Irish famine, 1845-1850. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 75.  
  10. ^ a b James Vernon (2007). "Chpts. 1-3". Hunger: A Modern History.  
  11. ^ In the main, this meant ending the practice where municipal officials would give out small sums of cash to the poor. Unlike in Britain a few decades earlier, the US did not pass nationwide laws restricting private individuals from giving food to the hungry.
  12. ^  
  13. ^ Wetsteon, Ross, Republic of Dreams Greenwich Village: The American Bohemia 1910-1960, Simon & Schuster, 2003, preface
  14. ^ "Soup Kitchens" Social Security Online History Page.
  15. ^ a b Janet Poppendieck (1999). "Introduction, Chpt 1". Sweet Charity?: Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement. Penguin.  
  16. ^ a b c Andrew Walter (2012). William A Dando, ed. Food and Famine in the 21st Century.  
  17. ^ Claire Bessette (14 February 2013). "Norwich soup kitchen hearing postponed". Retrieved 15 February 2013. 
  19. ^ Nick Squires (2011-02-105). "Knights of Malta to open soup kitchens in Britain".  
  20. ^ "SCOFF THAT - Free Food Daily For 300,000 at Worlds largest Soup Kitchen". 12 April 2013. Retrieved 17 September 2013. 
  21. ^ Although some soup kitchens also like to give visitors a second "carry out" meal.
  22. ^ John Henley (14 March 2012). "Greece on the breadline: how leftovers became a meal".  
  23. ^ Mat Clinch (8 February 2013). "Food bank visits surge, not just for the poor".  
  24. ^ Clare Lissaman (25 January 2013). Community spirit' fuels Wolverhampton soup kitchen"'".  

Notes and references

See also

Food banks typically have procedures needed to prevent unscrupulous people taking advantage of them, unlike soup kitchens which will usually give a meal to whomever turns up with no questions asked. The soup kitchen's greater accessibility can make it more suitable for assisting people with long-term dependence on food aid. Soup kitchens can also provide warmth, companionship and the shared communal experience of dining with others, which can be especially valued by people such as widowers or the homeless. In some countries such as Greece, soup kitchens have become the most widely used form of food aid, with The Guardian reporting in 2012 that an estimated 400,000 Greeks visit a soup kitchen each day.[8][16][22][23][24]

In some countries such as Great Britain, increased demand from hungry people has largely been met by food banks, operating on the "front line" model, where they give food out directly to the hungry. In the USA, such establishments are called "food pantries"; Americans generally reserve the term "food bank" for entities which perform a warehouse-like function, distributing food to front line agencies but not directly to the hungry themselves. Instead of providing hot meals, front line food banks and pantries hand out packages of groceries so that recipients can cook themselves several meals at home. This is often more convenient for the end user. They can receive food for up to a dozen or so meals at once, whereas with a soup kitchen, they typically only receive a single meal with each visit.[21]

Comparison with front line food banks and pantries

The world's largest soup kitchen run at the Sikhs' holiest shrine, Golden Temple in Punjab, India, which according to Croatian Times can serve free food for up to 100,000 - 300,000 people every day.[20] At the Langar (Kitchen), food is served to all visitors regardless of faith, religion or background. Vegetarian food is often served to ensure that all people, even those with dietary restrictions, can eat together as equals. The institution of the Sikh langar, or free kitchen, was started by the first Sikh Guru (Prophet), Guru Nanak. It was designed to uphold the principle of equality between all people regardless of religion, caste, colour, creed, age, gender or social status, a revolutionary concept in the caste-ordered society of 16th-century India where Sikhism began. In addition to the ideals of equality, the tradition of langar expresses the ethics of sharing, community, inclusiveness and oneness of all humankind. Every Sikh Gurdwara (shrine) serve Langar for everyone.

World's largest soup kitchen

Use of soup kitchens has grown rapidly across the world, following the lasting global inflation in the cost of food that began in late 2006. The global financial crisis further increased the demand for soup kitchens, as did the introduction of austerity policies that have become common in Europe since 2010. Modern soup kitchens are generally well regarded, though like their historical counterparts they are sometimes disliked by local residents for lowering the tone of a neighborhood.[16][17][18][19]

Members of the United States Navy serve the homeless at Dorothy's Soup Kitchen, Salinas, California in 2009.

In the 21st century


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