Chapter Six: Food Acquisition and Food Safety

We now come to the critical subject of acquiring food and handling food in a safe and sanitary manner. This is such important subject matter that each of these topics will be described in its own section.

Food Acquisition

After determining the location and facility of your soup kitchen, the next challenging issue is that of food acquisition. It is likely that your group of founders will also initially be the food providers and the cooking staff for your meals. In order to obtain the lowest possible costs when you shop for food you should investigate purchasing from bulk discount stores. You should also look into other food purveyors in your community who might be able to offer you volume pricing, or preferred pricing given the food is being used for charitable purposes. You should also investigate opportunities for food rescue (also known as food recovery) from area restaurants, supermarkets (day old bread, pastry and fruit) and from corporate and school cafeterias, but be mindful that transporting perishable food comes with risk.

Once your soup kitchen has established itself somewhat, you will want to become a member of your local affiliate of Feeding America, the nation’s food bank network. As a member you will be able to access donated food and groceries, as well purchased food and groceries. The bulk of the food will be available at costs dramatically below wholesale. Much will be free. Some will have a modest fee that covers the food bank’s cost of warehousing, handling and transporting the food or an annual membership and transportation fee.

You will also want to participate in the Federal Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) that helps supplement the diets of low-income Americans by providing emergency food at no cost. Food is provided through the states to food banks, which in turn distribute to local agencies such as soup kitchens that directly serve the public.

It should be noted that both Feeding America and TEFAP commodities may not be* available to start-up operations for an initial period of three to six months.

Having a group of volunteers glean previously harvested farm fields can generate a surprising amount of high-quality vegetables. Items such as white or sweet potatoes and carrots have a long shelf life and are especially easy items to glean. Other good sources of food are local citrus, apple and pear orchards.

The federal “Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996” promotes food recovery and gleaning by limiting potential liability of donors. Specifically, donors are not subject to civil or criminal liability arising from the nature, age, packaging, or condition of apparently wholesome food in the absence of donor’s negligence or intentional misconduct.

Food Acquisition Tips

TIP # 1 – A good source of food is to encourage targeted food drives for specific items such as tuna fish, canned vegetables and soup, peanut butter, coffee, and pasta. Whenever possible request larger cans (#10 size) to reduce the labor of opening them. Canned vegetables and soups can oftentimes be combined to make nutritious stews.

TIP # 2 – Having an individual or group of individuals plant a garden is another way to provide nutritious fresh vegetables.

TIP # 3 – Another means of food acquisition is to ask local school groups, business offices or scout troops to purchase or collect ingredients and to prepare brown bag meals. However, you are at risk when you do not know how food is handled off-site or whether food safety standards are followed. Perishable foods such as sandwiches or casseroles prepared by outsiders should be accepted with extreme caution and you need assurances that food safety rules were adhered to in the preparation, handling and transport of the food to your site.

TIP # 4 – A similar food acquisition idea is to ask outside groups to purchase and prepare ingredients for next-day breakfast bags for the children. The bags would contain a cereal box, a small bag of dried milk or a container of non-refrigerated milk, a piece of fruit, and a juice pack. Over time this kind of project could expand into backpack meals for the children to take home for the weekend.

TIP # 5 – Another source of supplemental food is to ask volunteers to purchase and prepare baggies of trail mix for patrons. is is a volunteer friendly activity and bags are easy to make. It is essential that you stress that sanitary gloves be used when assembling the bags; otherwise, the donation cannot be accepted. Trail mix is high in calories and protein, but unfortunately, also can be somewhat high in sugar.

Food Safety

One of the most important issues that a soup kitchen faces is that of food safety and sanitation. Some of the rules guiding the safe handling of food are no more than common sense, but discipline and diligence are required to ensure good practices are always followed. The paragraphs that follow are not meant to be a substitute for formal training in the subject, but rather to provide a brief overview of food safety issues and protocol.

Early in your project planning you should apply to your local municipal health department for licensing and certification as a public food service facility. In addition to obtaining the local health department permit, municipal inspections should also include fire safety (fire alarms, smoke detectors and/or fire suppression systems).

You should ensure that those in charge of food preparation have formal Food Safety and Sanitation training. This will be a requirement for membership with your local Feeding America food bank. These courses are usually offered at local community colleges. This training should also be periodically updated. Preventing food borne illness is crucial and particularly important serving a patron population who may have compromised immune systems.

Some of the more important food safety rules are:

  • Temperature control of potentially hazardous food products must be kept above 140 degrees F or below 40 degrees F. Food between these two temperatures is in what is known as “the danger zone”.
  • Proper hand washing is critical. Wash with soap and water and rub hands vigorously for at least 20 seconds, scrubbing front and backs of hands, wrists, and between fingers and under fingernails. Rinse well, dry hands with a clean or disposable towel or hot air dryer and use a disposable towel to turn off faucets.
  • Hand sanitizers for staff, volunteers and patrons help to ensure good hygiene practices.
  • Proper use and washing of kitchen tools and cutting boards is mandatory to prevent cross-contamination between food products.
  • Kitchen workers and servers should wear sanitary aprons, hats or hairnets and gloves.
  • If food is being prepared by an outside group, it is important to ensure that such groups stringently follow fundamental food safety procedures.
  • Inspection of food donations is important. Some of the more obvious concerns are food discoloration or odor, dented, rusted, leaking, bulging or open cans and bottles, expired date codes, moldy bread or pastry, and items that appear to have been thawed and refrozen. Do not accept food that has been sitting out for hours, such as leftovers from a company picnic or office party. The general rule is, “If in doubt, throw it out!”

It is important to assign someone to monitor the restrooms to ensure that they always have enough hand soap and paper towels. Given that some of your patrons may be homeless, they may use your restrooms as a wash room. A certain amount of this activity is unavoidable and can result in heavy use of soap and towels. Restrooms should be also inspected for cleanliness several times during meal service. You might also consider installing wall mounted hand sanitizers in the dining room.

As your soup kitchen project becomes more established, you should determine whether you need a food transport van. If you are accepting food that can spoil quickly if not kept below 40 degrees F, you may need to acquire a refrigerated van. You also should utilize insulated containers or freezer blankets to keep food hot or cold. You might consider soliciting the donation of the van from a local automobile or truck dealer.

Vermin and pest control is extremely important. Left-over food must be properly stored or thrown away lest it attract rodents. Overall facility cleanliness is crucial. If you don’t keep on top of vermin and insects, they can quickly get out of hand. Pest control guidelines should be established including regular service visits by pest control specialists.

Food Safety Tips

TIP #1 – Some food donations from family, company or civic organization functions may have been exposed to non-hygienic conditions. Be especially wary of summer picnics where food may not have been refrigerated properly. If there is doubt in your mind about the safety of a certain donation, it is incumbent upon you to firmly but gently explain to the donor why you can’t accept their food. This is especially important since some of your patrons may be suffering from compromised immune systems. As much as you might want to say yes to a donor (it is a way to keep costs down after all), it is important sometimes to be able to say no.

TIP #2 – You will need a contingency plan in case freezers or refrigerators fail or if there is a general power failure. Possible responses include transferring your stored food to sister organizations and serving non–perishable food products such as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

TIP #3 – It is important to clean kitchen and dining room floors, but you should also display “Wet Floor” signs. Wet floors are a specific safety hazard, particularly tile floors.

TIP #4 – One of the cardinal rules of food storage is FIFO – first in, first out. You don’t want to keep old product in the back of the freezer, refrigerator or in dry storage. Proper stock rotation is important.

TIP #5 – For proper washing of hands you should scrub for 20 seconds. That is approximately the time it takes to sing two verses of “Happy Birthday”!

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* The original text stated that Feeding America and TEFAP “are not” available rather than “may not be”. In the experience of the web formatter, this restriction is made at the regional level for Feeding America food banks. You can find your regional food bank at