Soup kitchens are social welfare institutions that provide meals for free or for reduced prices on a regular basis. There is evidence that soup kitchens have provided meals for people at different times, in diverse civilizations, and across the globe for at least six hundred years. Though they have clearly been sidelined by services and benefits provided by modern welfare states, even at the end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first century soup kitchens continue to function across the globe in both developed and less-developed nations.1
There is evidence that large-scale soup kitchens, known as imarets, were established in the fourteenth century in various parts of the Ottoman Empire and they remained a central social institution in the empire until its demise in the early years of the twentieth century.2 Similarly, soup kitchens served as a means of ensuring food security in Beijing during the Qing dynasty in China, beginning in the late seventeenth century.3 In Europe as well, soup kitchens provided a means of dealing with poverty and with a lack of work and resources during different periods. In Bavaria, the renowned Count Rumford (Sir Benjamin Thompson) planned and established a public kitchen in 1790 and then successfully exported the idea to other European countries.4 In England, shortages of food, during and after the Napoleonic wars of the late eighteenth century, led to the introduction of soup kitchens in different cities, while various localities in Tuscany, under the rule of the French in the second decade of the nineteenth century, established soup kitchens as an alternative to other forms of outdoor assistance to the poor.5 A few decades later, the Great Irish Famine of the mid-nineteenth century saw the adoption [End Page 240] of the Soup Kitchen Act by the British Parliament and the subsequent introduction of soup kitchens across Ireland as a means to combat widespread hunger and to replace relief work.6 During the latter half of that century, soup kitchens served a local response to the needs of the homeless in Philadelphia and New York and other large cities in the United States.7 Soup kitchens also functioned as a crucial act of communal enterprise during the coal miners' strike in Wales in the late 1920s.8 During the early years of Great Depression in the United States in the 1930s, soup kitchens were a prime source of relief, providing food for many of the unemployed.9
In much of this literature, soup kitchens emerge as a crucial social welfare institution that typically preceded the large-scale involvement of the state in the provision of social services, or they supplemented existing public institutions in times of acute social crisis. The characteristics of the soup kitchens that existed in the decades that preceded the emergence of the welfare state often appear to be diametrically opposed to those generally identified with those of the institutions that comprised the welfare states as they crystallized in the second half of the twentieth century. Soup kitchens were often temporary institutions established by private individuals or charities in times of economic or social crisis that sought to deal with acute needs of citizens by providing sustenance. The staff providing the service tended to be primarily composed of (often religiously motivated) nonprofessional volunteers. Access to the soup kitchens was generally unconditional and offered on a first-come-first-served basis. By contrast, welfare states comprised of state-funded and -run institutions tended to provide long-term benefits or benefits-in-kind to recipients based on clearly defined criteria. The provision of food has never been perceived as a legitimate or feasible goal of welfare states with the emphasis, particularly with regard to the poor, being on access to the labor market, to adequate services, and to cash benefits. Professionals are the core personnel in these state-run institutions.
Nevertheless, at the time of their establishment, soup kitchens were often a marked improvement over the sporadic, often particularistic welfare institutions that existed beforehand. At times when neither state nor church offered adequate...