How to Get Free Food When Homeless

Employees sort food in a food pantry.

When you’ve become homeless, getting food and not starving to death should be easy for most people to do. I was homeless once upon a time, and I often tell people that during this period I often ate healthier and better than I ever did when I was buying my own food. I didn’t have the luxury of buying fast food every day like I did when I had more money. I had to do without all the junk food that I would normally eat when I was doing well.

Plus, there were all types of charities and resources in my area for me to get at least two meals a day, if not all three. They often serve healthy or basic meals, without all the filler junk that you’ll often eat when you’re afforded the option to do so.

This isn’t to say that homelessness is easy or not stressful. It’s one of the worst things a person can ever go through. Believe me, I know just as well as anybody else who’s been through it before. But finding a way to eat each day and stay healthy should be much easier than finding shelter or staying safe while on the streets.

With that said, here’s some of the main ways that I found food each day and some ideas that might help you if you’re just starting out and need a good meal.

 

EBT
Your first and most important step should be to apply for EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer, also known as “food stamps”) if you’re living in the United States, or through any social programs your country has set up if you’re living outside the United States. With EBT, most individuals can qualify for $200 worth of funds that can be used to purchase food each month.

Just keep in mind that this amount can be more if you’re a family or less if you have any income from other sources. In the past, you could only use EBT to purchase cold foods that were not already prepared and not hot.

Nowadays, there are many different options, depending on your state, and some areas actually have fast food places that can accept EBT cards for warm and heated food. The way it works is you simply apply and normally interview with a case worker.

If approved, you’ll receive a card with money on it that is to be used for food purchases and each month that card is reloaded as long as you still qualify.

 

Shelters
Most shelters that offer beds also offer food services, at least in the United States, the UK, Australia, and the majority of developed countries. Some may offer some packaged foods or bags of food, but the vast majority of them offer home-cooked style meals and the food is normally donated to them by charities, food drives, and nearby grocery stores or other companies.

It’s not uncommon for grocery store chains to donate food to shelters just before it’s about to expire. The food hasn’t quite expired yet, but they will donate it within it’s last week or two out of fear that it may not sell by the time it expires. They get a tax break for donating so much, the shelter gets free food, and those who frequent the shelter get free meals. It’s a win-win situation for everybody.

I’ve heard of some shelters that require you to stay the night if you want to eat the meals they cook, but this is extremely rare and the vast majority of them will allow you to eat their food whether you’re staying the night with them or not. It’s always best to call your nearby shelters to find out if you’re eligible for their food services and to inquire what times they’re serving it.

 

Food Pantries
When it comes to packaged meals and groceries, food pantries seem to be the best place to go for this. Most food pantries will hand out a large grocery bag full of ready to eat food, food that involves cooking, or a combination of both. They will often limit how many times you can visit them within a certain time period.

There was one pantry in my area that I would frequent which handed out two full bags of groceries every two weeks to people who genuinely needed it. Because they give out so much food and people sometimes take advantage of this when they don’t really need it, food pantries are normally only for people who are having emergencies and can’t get food elsewhere.

This is why they set limits and they may cut you off or stop dispensing you food after so many times. The requirements to get food at each food pantry can vary, but most will track you by your driver’s licence or ID card.

I once knew a woman who wasn’t even homeless and who went to a food pantry in her area every few weeks to get free groceries. She kept going even after she didn’t have any financial problems with buying her own food. Needless to say, they stopped dispensing it to her after a few months when they realized she was taking advantage of the system.

So just keep this in mind when you visit pantries and it may be best to only use them when you run out of other resources, so you’ll always have the option of going to them.
Also, it’s worth noting that food banks and food pantries are not the same thing. A food bank is where food pantries get their food supplies from. Charities and individual people can donate food and canned goods to food banks (who often hold “food drives” in their areas or through employers), and then those who manage the food pantries go to the food banks to pick up the goods.

 

Soup Kitchens
Back in the old days, soup kitchens and shelters were often separated, but nowadays most shelters also serve as soup kitchens and have the food and the beds all in one location.

However, there are still many soup kitchens left around the world and in the United States that are still functioning soley as soup kitchens. These places typically serve very cheap food, and as the name suggests, hot liquid foods such as soups and broths are most common. But most soup kitchens serve other types of foods as well, depending on the day.

While shelters will typically be open throughout the day or during specific times throughout the day for different things, soup kitchens are typically only open once or twice a day and only when they’re serving meals during these times, though this can vary depending on where you go.

 

Churches
Most churches (the decent ones anyways), will offer some form of charity to the homeless in the form of food at certain times or on certain days. They will either offer warm meals that are served on the premises, or they will offer some form of bagged meals, which is usually a brown paper bag filled with essentials such as a sandwich, a banana, and a juice box.

Some offer food service only on holidays or special days, while others offer food daily or weekly. The holiday scenario is the most common one, but when I was homeless I’d go to one particular church every Sunday for breakfast. This was the only meal during the week that they served but it was very nice of them and the food was excellent.

I also went to another church every Thursday to pick up my mail there and they would hand out brown bag lunches about one hour before it was time to pick up the mail, so I took advantage of that too. Most churches don’t just offer food service to help out the homeless in their local community, but also to welcome homeless people into their church as members.

Sometimes people do become more religious through this process and the church will sometimes even help their members with other services such as helping one find a place to stay or help with purchasing a tent or other things someone might need when homeless. So it’s always worth checking out your local churches and either calling them or visiting in person to see what services they may or may not offer.

 

Outside Shelters
I was homeless for almost 7 months and slept outside a local homeless shelter most of that time. Sleeping outside in the parking lot there at night and in the early morning exposed me to not only other homeless people on the streets, but also social groups, families, and charities that wanted to help us out.

As an example, there was this one Mexican-American family that would visit our shelter once a week to distribute sandwiches to everybody. They would drive up to our parking lot area in a van every Saturday morning and would then open the backdoor to the van while homeless people lined up to get sandwiches.

They would hand out these pre-made sandwiches to over 100 people every Saturday. They were a single family but they did this on behalf of their church who would provide them with the sandwiches or at least the money for the supplies to make them every week.

There was a company next door to our shelter which was a glass window company and the manager and a few employees there sometimes brought food to us as well. Also, a Korean church in our area would make barbecued food for us on every holiday and would set up tables in the homeless shelter’s parking lot in a buffet-style setup for all the vagrants.

Another example of outside charitable work is larger organizations such as Food on Foot, which is a group of volunteers that literally distribute food on foot in Los Angeles and within their local communities.

The best way to find which areas outside where food is usually dropped off at or distributed is to speak with other homeless people outside shelters and simply ask them. Word of mouth is one of your best and undervalued sources of information when living on the streets.

 

Small Local Businesses
Lastly, you may even want to check with all local businesses in your area that sell food and inquire with them if you can possibly get any free food from them. Many companies throw food away at the end of the each night because it didn’t sell during the day and won’t stay fresh or be sellable the next day.

However, some companies actually have policies against giving homeless food for different reasons and they’ve instructed their employees to obey these rules. Sometimes it’s for safety reasons because the food may have sat out at room temperature for too long and may cause food poisoning.

So just keep this in mind and try not to get angry with anybody who says they can’t provide any food. They may be putting their jobs at risk or they may have genuine health and safety concerns for not providing the food to you. The only way to find local businesses in your area that might provide you with some free food each night is to visit them just before closing and inquire with them.

It might even best to approach smaller mom and pop type shops, rather than large chains or stores. I say this because they may be less likely to have general policies in place against giving away food.

Once you find a company that’s willing to help you out with some food each night or every so often, you can keep inquiring at other places until you have more than one place willing to do this for you. Then you’ll actually have a choice on what types of foods you can eat each night until you get back on your feet.