Nutrition Education and Food for the Homeless-University Outreach

Article excerpt


The Food Stamp Nutrition Education Initiative targeted persons who were homeless and visiting an overnight shelter. Monthly visits were made to deliver nutrition education and provide a dinner meal for one year. About 1,650 meals were served, and 1,000 shelter guests were offered nutrition education. In addition, 177 college students received training in both quantity foodservice and in assuming leadership in helping improve food security. Universities, health service organizations, and high schools may find this approach, or some aspects of it, useful in increasing food security awareness and meeting nutritional needs of those who are homeless, living in shelters.

About 12 million U.S. residents have experienced homelessness during their lifetime (Link et al., 1995). The National Coalition for the Homeless (1999) suggests that the emergency shelter system fails to meet the demand created by the high number of homeless individuals. For example, in Florida there are over 55,000 homeless people, but there are only 5,800 available beds in emergency shelters (Economic Self-Sufficiency Services, 1998). Another problem associated with homelessness is hunger and food insecurity, which becomes even more exaggerated when people are turned away from shelters and, sometimes, their only meal of the day. Homeless families have limited cooking and food storage facilities; therefore, they rely more on shelters for food (Hamm and Holden, 1999).

As early as 1977, the U.S. government set out to abolish hunger and improve nutrition in America by establishing the Food Stamp Program. In 1997, the federal government spent $21.4 billion on the program (FRAC, 1999). Homeless people have a legal right to receive food stamps. The Food Stamp Program, as a federal program, must provide, by law, a method for registering a person without a mailing address for food stamps (NLCHP, 1999). Many of the homeless do not know that this service is available to them. As a result, people who are homeless might be helped with education about their legal rights and a procedure to obtain food stamps.

Shelters rely on donations as their only source of food. Many individuals and charity groups who provide the food lack the proper training and resources to provide nutritious and safe meals. Consequently, there is a desire for food safety and meal planning information for meal providers, plus feeding, nutrition education, and instruction on obtaining food stamps for the homeless. This is coupled with the desires of universities to educate future dietitians and nutrition professionals about food security issues, including those issues related to homeless individuals and families.

This paper describes one program, the Food Stamp Nutrition Education Initiative, which addressed these issues. The outreach offered meals and education to homeless individuals. It also offered a service-learning opportunity to dietetic students in improving the health and nutrition of homeless individuals. Models for education and foodservice in this setting were developed providing educators, students, and other interested professionals with pathways for offering education and quantity foodservice to guests of local shelters.


Funded in part by a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture, this outreach started in the fall of 1998. Grant funding related to food stamps began in 1996 and is unique for two reasons. First, this is a cost reimbursement program where money is spent on the project and then claimed for federal reimbursement; second, the USDA only matches in-kind services donated to the program. The outreach was an evolution of a previous program in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences, in The College of Human Sciences at Florida State University. This previous program organized a dinner meal once a semester for homeless persons staying in a local shelter. Prior to receiving the grant funding, one faculty member plus volunteers from the Student Dietetic Association solicited donations within the community, organized and prepared the meal, and served the dinner at the shelter. …