“Access to food is a basic human need and a fundamental right.” —American Dietetic Association, 2010

Nutritional Compromise among Homeless

Overall, foods provided to homeless individuals through shelter feeding facilities are high in fat, low in fiber, and inadequate in the provision of most nutrients (Davis, Weller, Jadav & Holleman, 2008; Johnson & McCool, 2003). Study results show that homeless preschool children who are shelter fed receive only 66% of the recommended amount of bread and grains, 25-33% of the recommended amount of vegetables, and the minimal recommended amount of meat and fruit allowances per day. Fruits are primarily canned and in heavy syrup with fresh fruit offering a rarity. Shelter fed children typically receive 8 ounces of 2% milk at each meal, which may reduce the overall composition of nutrients consumed. The author suggests, along with offering more nutritive foods, reducing the amount of 2% milk provided at each meal to 4 ounces. Shelter-fed children typically receive sweets and fats at three times the recommended amount (Kelly, 2001).

Additionally, homeless children are at a greater risk for iron-deficiency anemia than their low-income housed counterparts, even when both populations are receiving WIC benefits (Partington, Nitzke & Csete, 2000). Inadequate iron intake in children contributes to cognitive defects and poor development; negative consequences may remain even after iron status is returned to normal.

Homeless families living in motels have an even poorer nutritional profile. Results from the Nationwide Food Consumption Survey (NFCS) indicate that on an average day 32% of the participants had no dairy products, 36% had no vegetables, and 77% did not consume fruit (Oliveira & Goldberg, 2002). Goyings & Csete (1994) report that those who participated in government nutritional programs, such as the school breakfast and lunch programs and WIC, had improved dietary scores than those families who did not, regardless of the type of shelter provided (Oliveira & Goldberg, 2002).


  • Davis L, Weller N, Jadhav M, & Holleman W. (2008). Dietary intake of homeless women residing at a transitional living center. Journal of Health Care for the Poor & Underserved, 19(3):952-962.
  • Goyings N & Csete J. (1994). Dietary intake of homeless families in Wisconsin: lessons for nutrition educators. Journal of Nutrition Education, 26:62-68.
  • Holben D. (2010). Position of the American Dietetic Association: food insecurity in the United States. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 110(9):1368-1377.
  • Johnson L, & McCool A. (2003). Dietary intake and nutritional status of older adult homeless women: A pilot study. Journal of Nutrition for the Elderly, 23(1):1-21.
  • Kelly E. (2001). Assessment of dietary intake of preschool children living in a homeless shelter. Applied Nursing Research, 14(3):146-154.
  • Oliveira N, & Goldberg J. (2002). The nutrition status of women and children who are homeless. Nutrition Today, 37(2):70-77.
  • Partington S, & Nitzke S. (2000). The prevalence of anemia in a WIC population: A comparison by homeless experience. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 100(4):469.
  • United States Conference of Mayors. (2010). Hunger and homelessness survey: A status report on hunger and homelessness in America’s cities. Retrieved December 28, 2010.

Programs, Organizations & Resources

  • Federal Nutrition Assistance Programs
    • Child and Adult Care Food Program
    • Food Assistance for Disaster Relief
    • School Meals, including Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, and Special Milk Program.
    • Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program, Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program
    • Summer Food Service Program
    • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)