How to Volunteer at a Soup Kitchen

Soup kitchens around the U.S. work to combat hunger.
SW Productions/Photodisc/Getty Images

Every day, millions of Americans go hungry. In fact, more than 12 million children and 22 million adults in the U.S. live in households facing food insecurity -- meaning they don't have enough money to meet basic food needs [source: and FRAC]. With the economy at its worst since the Great Depression, more and more Americans across the country are turning to local soup kitchens for daily nourishment.

During the Great Depression, America saw the first of its soup kitchens. By the early 1930s, 12 million Americans were unemployed, so the need for assistance was increasing every day. This is when soup kitchens began to surface. You might be surprised to find out that an early benefactor of this idea was one of the most widely known outlaws in the United States [source:].


Al Capone, most famous for his many gang-related crimes in prohibition-era Chicago, recognized the call to help. He opened a soup kitchen to benefit his crime-ridden neighborhood -- and his own image [source:]. His shelter fed unemployed residents up to three meals a day consisting of soup and bread. This tradition has become the standard. Today, soup and bread remain staples at many soup kitchens. After all, bread is inexpensive and filling and the high levels of carbohydrates help provide energy. And soup is relatively inexpensive and easy to prepare in massive batches.

Homeless people and struggling families can find shelter, a warm meal and friendly faces in soup kitchens. Thomas Meyers, the executive director of Mel Trotter Ministries Soup Kitchen in Grand Rapids, Mich., said he always tries to provide a smile to those who need to see one the most. He said volunteering in a soup kitchen is rewarding not because you get to meet great people, but because you can see the satisfaction on people's faces when they take a bite out of a warm meal [source: Meyers].

All volunteers at soup kitchens make a difference in somebody's life. And while you may find yourself short on free time, the rewards of volunteering at a soup kitchen will be worth it. Read on to learn more.



Why Volunteer at a Soup Kitchen?

Pork roast, corn on the cob, mashed potatoes and apple pie for desert sounds like the ideal dinner for some. But for others, an ideal dinner is simply having something to eat -- anything at all. It's an unfortunate truth that millions of Americans go hungry every day. Soup kitchens, which rely on volunteers and charitable donations, are one good step toward ending hunger.

Why volunteer at a soup kitchen? The simple answer is that it's just a good thing to do -- for both your community and yourself. Making sure people have basic nutrition is incredibly important to their health and wellbeing. And volunteering at a soup kitchen, like volunteering for other charitable groups, is a very rewarding experience, which in turn can be beneficial to your overall health and wellbeing.


Holidays see an influx of volunteers, especially Thanksgiving, but it's important to remember that many kitchens are open 365 days a year. Guests rely on these hours of operation, which means the kitchens must rely on consistent volunteering. Of course volunteering during holidays is a great gift, but consider other times and ways you may be able to help. Instead of planning a book club meeting or movie night with your friends, consider planning a monthly volunteer night to prepare and serve food at a local soup kitchen or shelter. Check with the volunteer staffing manager to arrange a regular time for your group to help.

If cooking isn't your thing, there are many other ways to help. You could organize an event to help stock or fund your local soup kitchen. Before doing so, be sure to get in touch with the kitchen to see what donations they accept. If you don't have a local soup kitchen, but see the need for these services in your community, consider opening one. You can look for a group sponsor, such as a local religious organization or business to assist you.

Today, there are thousands of soup kitchens across the nation that rely on volunteers. Becoming a part of these generous organizations is as simple as serving a hot meal -- and you don't even have to cook it!

Read on to learn about how to get out and donate your time.


Arranging to Volunteer at a Soup Kitchen

Most cities and towns across the United States have a local soup kitchen or food pantry -- and many have more than one. To locate a shelter, soup kitchen or food pantry nearby, you can look in the phonebook or go online. Churches, schools and government agencies may also be able to help you in your search. After locating a facility you want to help, call and ask to speak to the volunteer coordinator or manager to discuss volunteer opportunities. Consider your availability and then inform the kitchen of when you would like to help.

Typically, volunteers of all ages and backgrounds are welcome. But if you are school-aged, or plan to involve school-aged persons in your volunteer group, be sure to notify the volunteer coordinator of this. There could be age restrictions or safety concerns to consider.


Soup kitchens are typically flexible and cooperative with your schedule, but always remember to treat the volunteer experience as if it were a regular job. Be dependable, show up on time and take your responsibilities seriously. Since soup kitchens, shelters and food pantries rely almost exclusively on volunteer help, skipping a shift can have a huge impact on workflow. Also, be professional -- remember that soup kitchens are meant to provide free, nutritious meals to guests in a respectful manner that allows them to retain their dignity.

With national figures passing the 30-million-people mark, ending hunger seems like an impossible goal. But it doesn't have to be. By volunteering at a soup kitchen, shelter or food pantry, you can help fight hunger and make a difference in the wellbeing of your community.

For more information on volunteering, check out the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Angel House Soup Kitchen. "Volunteer Opportunities." (Accessed 04/29/2009).
  • Blanchard, Rashawn. "Volunteering in NYC: Soup kitchens." Associated Content. 12/20/06. (Accessed 4/29/09)
  • Bread for the World. "Hunger Facts: Domestic." (Accessed 5/24/09)
  • Food Research and Action Center (FRAC). "Hunger in the U.S." (Accessed 5/24/09)
  • Franciscan Outreach Association. "Volunteer to Help the Homeless at our Volunteer Shelter." (Accessed 4/29/2009)
  • Meyers, Thomas. Personal Interview. 4/29/09.
  • "Depression-era Soup Kitchens." 2009. (Accessed 4/28/09)