Why we're no fans of the 'soup kitchen' label

July 8, 2021
Soup kitchens are one of the oldest responses to food insecurity—the world's longest-running (and largest, at 100,000 meals a day) is in the Golden Temple gurdwara in Punjab that has been in operation since the 15th century. In North America, they were especially prominent during the 1930s and saw a resurgence again after the 1980s.
While food banks have become the dominant form of food charity in recent decades, soup kitchens serve a purpose for those who are unable to prepare food on their own, either through lack of access to a kitchen or other barriers. Our organization originated from a typical soup kitchen model, and to this day we continue to provide daily prepared meals to the public. So why, then, do we now reject this name?
To begin with, we are fully aware of the irony of making this argument when our name, 'Qajuqturvik', literally means 'place to get soup'. We have retained this name for its history in the community, and its uniqueness—nowhere else is this name used, so there is little room for misunderstanding. By contrast, for most people—especially those who have never been in one—the English term 'soup kitchen' is likely to evoke images of long lines, downtrodden people, and very simple food, not unlike the nearly century-old image above.
More recently, in their appeals to the public many food charities (including ourselves) have used imagery and language that is the opposite of uplifting: elderly men with disheveled beards, outstretched hands holding empty plates, and words like "needy", "poor" and "hungry". The result of this is that it's hard to think of a 'soup kitchen' or 'food bank' without thinking that the recipients are in very desperate circumstances, when in reality people could be accessing these supports for any number of reasons, and often for a short period of time. The name itself creates a halo of shame for anyone who needs it, and it's a big reason why so many of those facing food insecurity (as much as 80%) don't access these services.
Since soup kitchens are so well-established in public perception, it leads to an implicit assumption about what you can expect - a soup & sandwich, and not much else. Over the years we've expanded our scope and adapted the Community Food Centre model, which includes training, community-building, engagement and advocacy. We certainly provide meals, but we do so with the dignity of our guests constantly in mind, and our offerings are restaurant-quality. (one could argue that we have some of the best meals in town, but we don't want to offend our friends in the food industry :)
Finally, by adopting the label we don't want to perpetuate the myth that soup kitchens and food banks are an essential part of our society. After the Depression, the public were happy to see the end of the soup kitchens that had become a source of national embarrassment, and the result was the creation of social insurance policies that ensured a minimum standard of living for all. In the 1980s, a global recession, combined with gradual cuts to these policies, led to the rapid proliferation of food banks and soup kitchens as a 'temporary' measure to meet the basic needs of the newly jobless.
These were anything but temporary—forty years later we can count on a food bank in almost any community of a certain size. And unfortunately, this is an inefficient response compared to better income supports. One of the beneficiaries of this system are politicians, many of whom are eager to be seen volunteering at these charities; when the public feels food insecurity has been solved by food charity, politicians don't need to worry about food and income security as election issues.
Until we can count on social assistance being sufficient to meet people's basic needs, we will continue to provide these services to the public. At the same time, we will continue to advocate for a system that makes them obsolete. In the meantime, let's make the 'soup kitchen' label obsolete as well.
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