The diet of the homeless is not as rich and varied as that of people who have access to a kitchen. In fact, not being able to cook and preserve food has a big impact on the nutritional value of the meals of the homeless. Other factors, such as access to public assistance programs, also affect their diet.
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Lots of homeless people have diets consisting of fast food, basic staples such as bread and cheese and convenience food. While most homeless people don't hold a job per se, many do earn some money by picking up and selling cans, plastic bottles or other recyclables. Because cooking is out of the question, the diet of a homeless person usually revolves around quick foods that can be bought ready-made or that require no heating or preparation. Fast food places such as McDonald's are also popular because of their cheap menus and the fact that most locations are open 24 hours.
Soup kitchens and emergency shelters often provide meals for the homeless. Because these institutions depend mostly on donations to put together a menu, there are no guarantees as to what would be offered on the average day. Meals that are highly filling (such as potatoes and rice), but not necessarily nutritious, are especially common. Vegetables are often too expensive to be served as side dishes, so they are skipped. Foods rich in calcium and iron, such as dairy products and meats, are also uncommon.
A number of emergency and government programs offer food for the homeless. The Food Stamp Program and the National School Lunch Program are the best known, but they are not available to everybody. The Emergency Food Assistance Program, on the other hand, distributes food to emergency shelters, which in turn makes it available to both the homeless and low-income families.
Studies have shown that, given the choice, most homeless people will pass up on fruits and vegetables in favour of carbohydrates or meat. This is because produce is less filling and provides less energy, which is something that should be taken into consideration when you don't know where and when your next meal is coming.
Malnutrition is a common problem among the homeless. This is especially serious among children, but it can also manifest in the elderly and in those who drink excessively and suffer from a weakened liver or kidney. Because the choice of foods normally includes prepackaged items such as canned meals or fast-food items, the homeless are likely to be consuming high levels of sodium and low levels of calcium and fibre.