Salt Lake City’s homeless lack access to healthy foods. Here’s how one group is working to fix that.

Robby Rocha says people will often walk through the encampment where he was living last month in a field on Salt Lake City’s west side with bags full of food from McDonald’s or Burger King.

“I’ll eat it because you’re hungry,” he said. “McDonald’s is good. But I like when they bring homemade meals and homemade soups and stuff.”

At that moment, Rocha was sitting outside his tent on a camp chair, downing a plant-based meal distributed by volunteers from the Food Justice Coalition, a community group that has been working for the past few months to distribute healthy meals to people experiencing homelessness.

The roasted poblano corn and black bean pasta served that day was “probably one of the healthiest things I’ve ever had,” the 29-year-old California native said.

Jeanette Padilla, a private chef with a background in food-based nutrition, is the primary organizer behind the Food Justice Coalition and says the distribution effort came partly out of a recognition that it can be difficult for people on the streets to get the nutrients they need.

“One of the things I noticed whenever I would do distribution with other teams is that they would get a lot of really unhealthy food,” she said as she chopped up vegetables for a recent outreach trip. “What people do most commonly is they bring out doughnuts, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, granola bars, things like that. Not because they don’t want to give them healthy food, but just because it’s what’s most convenient and easy for people to distribute.”

Research has shown that people experiencing homelessness are more likely to have inadequate nutrition and eat fewer meals than the wider population, due to their limited financial means and lack of kitchen space or ability to store food.

And when it comes to providing healthy food to people experiencing homelessness, the system along the Wasatch Front is riddled with gaps, said Shannon Jones, an assistant clinical professor at the University of Utah in the department of nutrition and integrative physiology.

“It’s really a gap within our system that’s not being overtly addressed,” said Jones, who works with the population through her work with the U.’s Driving Out Diabetes initiative and as the project lead for Food, Movement & You, a program at the school that teaches homeless families healthy eating habits. “It falls on groups like us to raise funds and to try to be able to fill some of those holes for people.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Alexis Perno and Jeanette Padilla offer a man a tent and a tarp while distributing soup and hot chocolate with the Food Justice Coalition, on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021.

Systemic challenges

People experiencing homelessness often rely on emergency food pantries, which Jones said are generally full of “processed, shelf-stable foods” that are filled with calories but aren’t nutritionally dense.

And people rarely, “if ever,” she said, get fresh produce.

“Most of our emergency food system comes from donations,” Jones added. “And so, of course, people want to maximize their money and the output, but that tends to then reflect our overall food system, which is the cheapest, subsidized foods are what get donated.”

Even foods in shelters “are often high in refined carbohydrates and undesirable fats (trans fat and saturated fats from nutrient-poor sources) while also being low in fiber,” notes the National Health Care for the Homeless Council — something that can accelerate the development of cardiovascular disease.

Within the Salt Lake Valley shelter system, Jones sees nutrition gaps particularly at the Midvale Family Center, which has several kitchen bays for residents to use but that she said doesn’t have the space or the funding to provide meals.

“Kids are guaranteed a bowl of cereal in the morning,” she said, “and that’s it.”

A survey Jones conducted along with U. graduate students just before the COVID-19 pandemic found that of the 75{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed} of residents at the Midvale shelter who were surveyed, 95{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed} were food insecure.

Sarah Strang, deputy director of crisis services at The Road Home, which runs the shelter, said children and adults have access to cereal each morning and to sack lunches in the afternoon. And they’re able to use the emergency food pantry and the kitchen bays for dinner.

The U.’s statistics on food insecurity then, she said, point more to the challenges families face in feeding their children meals they’ll eat than they do to a lack of access.

“Frequently, even with the sack lunches, we get a sack lunch and it has a type of sandwich in it that a kiddo doesn’t like or they want a different type of meat or component, and they refuse to eat,” Strang said. “It’s not that food is not readily available, but it may not be the food that your child is used to eating or your family is used to eating.”

Unlike at the Midvale shelter, people in the Salt Lake City area’s three new homeless resource centers are guaranteed three meals a day. But Jones said that the funding for providing healthy food has been limited.

“We have these great three new resource centers that have commercial kitchens,” she said, “but there was no allocation of funding to make sure that they were able to get food at all — and certainly none to make sure that there was healthy, nutritious food.”

Shelter the Homeless, the nonprofit that owns the three resource centers, has to fundraise for private donations to provide meals in the resource centers, with ongoing support from Intermountain Health Care and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Laurie Hopkins, director of the nonprofit, noted that Catholic Community Services provides lunch and dinner. It partners with a dietitian “to create meals that are nutritious and include fresh ingredients.”

The homeless resource system does have “an ongoing need for meal support,” she said, including donations of bulk food at the centers, volunteer help to serve food, and contributions “to help defray the costs of paying for meals from CCS.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jeanette Padilla and Lucie Sullivan dish up some organic, vegan soup for volunteers from the Food Justice Coalition to distribute to people experiencing homelessness, on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021.

Filling the gaps

To improve the accessibility of healthy food for people outside the shelter system, Padilla has been working since December to provide plant-based meals — meaning they contain no or few animal products and are “really nutritionally dense” — to people on the streets.

Food Justice Coalition volunteers give out anywhere from 125 to 180 meals every time they go out, with costs hovering from $2 to $2.50 per meal, including packaging. Buying food in bulk has helped keep costs low, Padilla said, as have donations from community restaurants.

So far, she said, the reaction from people experiencing homelessness has been overwhelmingly positive.

On a recent distribution trip, people in the camp where Rocha was staying broke out in grins, with choruses of “thank you so much” and “God bless you” echoing through the camp as a team handed out the food.

“In the field, people don’t know that the food we give them is vegan,” Padilla said. “They just eat it, and they really like it. And we get really good feedback from it.”

Jones, on the other hand, has been working within the traditional homeless services system to improve access to healthy food. Through the Driving Out Diabetes program, she’s worked with leaders who operate emergency food pantries to adjust the guidance for what gets donated, so there are more fresh fruits and nutritionally dense options. That can be an uphill battle, she noted, since providers worry they won’t get any food if they’re too strict.

Jones also serves on the board for the nonprofit Waste Less Solutions, which has worked in the past with the Midvale shelter to divert food that might otherwise be thrown away to people experiencing homelessness. And she said a community garden she helps run through Wasatch Community Gardens also provides fresh, healthy food to people in this community.

Those collaborations, she said, are an important way to improve the system, since service providers often “don’t have the money, they don’t have the knowledge and expertise, and they don’t have the people power to be able to implement a lot of these [changes] themselves.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Food Justice Coalition volunteers Jamie Hirsh and Alexis Perno pass out organic, vegan soup and hot chocolate to people experiencing homelessness, on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021.

‘Their health also matters’

For Padilla, who says she grew up with food insecurity in California, the issue is personal — tied to her memories of living in a “very unsafe” commercial-use building that her parents were trying to start a business out of, or to the time her elementary school hosted a food drive with her family as one of the beneficiaries.

“This is not a game,” she said. “I grew up with it, and I don’t want anyone else to go through it.”

Padilla said she’s passionate about providing access to healthy foods as a way to not only improve people’s physical wellness but also to help with their mental wellness.

“If we’re not nourishing ourselves, we’re not able to think clearly,” she said. “And we know this. You know how you feel when you have, say, a breakfast sandwich for breakfast and a burger for lunch and a steak for dinner. You don’t feel very good in your body. You’re short with people because you’re just not feeling like you have enough patience.”

For people experiencing homelessness, Jones said, a lack of adequate nutrients may serve as yet another barrier to moving off the streets for good.

“We can probably fairly say that those experiencing hunger and homelessness without adequate nutrition are going to have a very difficult time regaining stability,” she said, noting the cognitive, emotional and physical impacts that can result from inadequate nutrition.

There are also public benefits to providing people experiencing homelessness with healthy food, Jones said, noting that preventive care is “drastically” less expensive than emergency care to deal with the ramifications of a poor diet.

The health obstacles facing people experiencing homelessness are immense, Padilla said. She hopes that providing cleaner foods can help people feel better mentally and physically, even if just for the day.

In her eyes, the distribution of healthy food also has an emotional component: It’s a way to show people experiencing homelessness that there are community members who care about them and want to see them thrive.

“The message we’re trying to convey is we’re taking the time and effort to provide them with really organic, nutritionally dense meals because we understand they’re real people with real needs and that their health also matters,” Padilla said. “And just because they’re out on the street doesn’t mean they should just be getting junk food.”