Deficits in the Diet

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Many homeless people rely on shelters and soup kitchens for their food intake. However, these sites may not provide an adequate diet. "Most shelters rely on private donations, a local food bank, and surplus commodity distributions. Because the nutritional quality and quantity of these resources vary greatly over time, meals may be nutritionally limited, even though the quantity of the food served may be acceptable to the recipient" (Wolge-muth et al., 1992, p. 834). Furthermore, easily stored and prepared foods do not provide the best nutritional value. These items are typically "high in salt, fat, preservatives, and empty calories (i.e., calories with little or no nutritional value), and low in variety, fiber, and protein" (Strasser et al., 1991, p. 70).

Due to the food sources of the homeless, deficits in the diet have been documented in numerous studies. The B vitamins, vitamin C, zinc, calcium, thiamine, folic acid, magnesium, and iron are all commonly found to be deficient in the homeless. Iron deficiencies are particularly common among the homeless, leading to high rates of anemia. In addition, the food that is likely to be offered at most local shelters and soup kitchens is high in salt, fat, and cholesterol, contributing to a high incidence of hypertension among the homeless.

Clearly, the homeless are a widely varied population, and responses to homelessness must also be varied in nature. Several such responses are needed. These include: prevention of homelessness through improving the housing stock; improving outreach through increased soup kitchens, emergency responses, and night shelters; and creating supportive housing to fat: type of food molecule rich in carbon and hydrogen, with high energy content calorie: unit of food energy fiber: indigestible plant material that aids digestion by providing bulk protein: complex molecule composed of amino acids that performs vital functions in the cell; necessary part of the diet

B vitamins: a group of vitamins important in cell energy processes zinc: mineral necessary for many enzyme processes calcium: mineral essential for bones and teeth iron: nutrient needed for red blood cell formation cholesterol: multi-ringed molecule found in animal cell membranes; a type of lipid help homeless persons reintegrate into society. Interagency coordination to improve services and the provision of enterprise development and skills training to improve the economic survival of the homeless are also needed. Finally, federal and local governments must be involved in efforts to help the homeless through policy development. This multifaceted approach will ensure a more effective response to homelessness. see also Food Insecurity; Nutritional Deficiency; WIC Program.

Pauline A. Vickery Heidi Williams Nadia Lugo


Carrillo, T. E.; Gilbride, J. A.; and Chan, M. M. (1990). "Soup Kitchen Meals: An Observation and Nutrient Analysis." Journal of the American Dietetic Association 90(7):989-991.

Dalaker, J. (2001). Poverty in the United States: 2000. Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau.

Hwang, S. W. (2001). "Homelessness and Health." Canadian Medical Association Journal 164(2):229-233.

Kelly, E. (1998). "Nutrition Among Homeless Children." Public Health Reports 113:287.

Luder, E.; Ceysens-Okada, E.; Koren-Roth, A.; and Martinez-Weber, C. (1990). "Health and Nutrition Survey in a Group of Urban Homeless Adults." Journal of the American Dietetic Association 90(10):1387-1392.

Oliviera, N. L., and Goldberg, J. P. "The Nutrition Status of Women and Children Who Are Homeless." Nutrition Today 37(2):70-77.

Strasser, J. A.; Damrosch, S.; and Gaines, J. (1991). "Nutrition and the Homeless Person." Journal of Community Health Nursing 8(2):65-73.

Wiecha, J. L.; Dwyer, J. T.; and Dunn-Strohecker, M. (1991). "Nutrition and Health Services Needs Among the Homeless." Public Health Reports 106(4):364-374.

Wolgemuth, J. C.; Myers-Williams, C.; Johnson, P.; and Henseler, C. (1992). "Wasting Malnutrition and Inadequate Nutrient Intakes Identified in a Multiethnic Homeless Population." Journal of the American Dietetic Association 92(7):834-839.

Internet Resources

Action Against Hunger (2002). "Hunger FAQ: Who Is Hungry?" Available from <>

Burt, M. R.; Aron, L. Y.; Douglas, T.; Valente, J.; Lee, E.; and Iwen, B. (1999). "An Overview of Homeless Clients." Available from < publications>

Food Research and Action Center. "Federal Food Programs." Available from <>

Global Issues. "Causes of Poverty: Hunger and Poverty." Available from <http://www.>

National Coalition for the Homeless (2002). "Facts about Homelessness." Available from <>

United Nations (1995). "Global Report on Human Settlements." Available from <>

United Nations (2000). "Strategies to Combat Homelessness." Available from <http://>

Urban Institute (2000). "Millions Still Face Homelessness in a Booming Economy: New Estimates Reveal a Large and Changing Homeless Population Served by Growing Diverse Network." Available from <>

  1. S. Census Bureau. "Poverty 2001." Available from <>
  2. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Homelessness: Programs and the People They Serve. Available from <>

World Hunger Year. "Hunger, Poverty and Homelessness in the U.S." Available from <>

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