Smiling Donors, Bored Recipients: Free Food In America

People lining up for free food are often tired, bored, and shabbily dressed ...

This is the latest installment of Public Streets, an urban observation series created by Ellis Avery and curated by Abigail Struhl


People lining up for free food are often tired, bored, and shabbily dressed; the majority are middle-aged and older women, often accompanied by small children. Those who serve them, on the other hand, seem to be in great spirits, smiling, joking, and taking pictures. And as expected, they are much better dressed than their clients.

I am interested in the places where food—prepared or staples—is given away for free, in how people line up, in what they receive, and in where they go with their bags. I have photographed these places of distribution, the people who stand at a table next to cardboard boxes to “feed the hungry,” and the people who receive the food. Food pantries in Los Angeles are marked on the city’s map as “Food Oases.” So I went to see these oases.

Ann and her children going to get free food, Robert Taylor Homes, 4037 S. Federal Street, Chicago, 1995

Since the 1970s, I have seen lines of destitute people amid the desolation of Chicago’s West Side, everywhere in Detroit and in Camden, New Jersey, as well as in many other cities. My photographs of people looking for food in ramshackle neighborhoods stay in my mind.  For example, I saw volunteers asking people to line up and to stay in their places. The Love Fellowship Tabernacle on Liberty Avenue in Brooklyn asked recipients to line up in alphabetic order and to bring an ID for their first visit.

Usually, food distribution is through a church. A truck parked in an empty lot in Camden has a sign saying, “Jesus Christ Saves Heals and Delivers.” Packed in boxes, most of the food comes from the local community food bank. Food that is about to expire at places like Whole Foods is also often given to churches such as the Precious People Center in Los Angeles. The clients take it home in plastic bags that they place in pushcarts. Religion is part of the message. Esther, a Presbyterian minister, happily hands out Krispy Kreme donuts to people on Skid Row in Los Angeles. Bishop Parrott in Newark used to get vegetarian food from the local Hare Krishna temple to distribute at his Lighthouse Temple.

Thanksgiving Dinner sponsored by the Los Angeles Mission, 5th Street at San Julian, Los Angeles, 2006

On the website of St. John’s Church in Newark, requests are made for coffee, marinara sauce, and canned soup to distribute.  Once, on Lexington Avenue and East 125th Street in New York, someone dropped a box full of foodstuffs from Meals on Wheels. I saw people contemplating the box and picking what they liked.

To get turkeys and chickens, people need to line up early, sometimes before daybreak. At the First Grace Baptist Church in Harlem, I encountered people annoyed at having waited for a turkey and instead having to leave with packages of sliced ham, because the church had run out of turkeys.

Soup kitchen, Lighthouse Temple, 1035 Broad Street, Newark, 1987

There is no shortage of staples such as onions, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, apples, bananas, potatoes, cider, orange juice, bottled water, and canned goods. At St. Paul’s Tabernacle of Divine Prophecy on Clinton Avenue in Newark, I saw white plastic bags full of enormous carrots held in reserve in case they ran out of all other staples.

Prepared food is distributed in Styrofoam or aluminum containers from a truck parked nearby.  On special occasions such as Easter, the Los Angeles Mission sets up tables decorated with paper flowers along East 5th Street, and volunteers serve lunch to street people and their families. On summer Sundays, on Gratiot Avenue in Detroit, church members of the Free Indeed Ministries Church barbecue sausages and offer them with bread and Kool-Aid to passersby.  Their hope is that they will stay for the sermon.  Some places specialize in distributing food to veterans or children, or serving hot meals to the elderly.

Charles in the wheel chair, Daphne wearing blue, Paloma, Hilda, and Nora sitting at the center, 11165 S. Central Avenue, Los Angeles, 2014

For some donors the goal is to eliminate “food insecurity,” for others it’s to eliminate hunger. “Go with God to a Free Thanksgiving Dinner,” read a sign on Springfield Avenue in Newark. The Salvation Army in Harlem, “Doing the Most Good,” offers a turkey for everyone. In Camden I found a billboard announcing the coming “Convoy de la Esperanza,” bringing 35,000 pounds of food to give away “gratis” to people in Farnham Park.

I had my first free Thanksgiving dinner last year, on West 125th Street in Manhattan, with the Grant Houses in the background. For a block around, the smell was that of home and family. There were excellent mashed potatoes, and the turkey, cooked under coals in big drums brought for the event, was flavorful and moist.  The meal was served in Styrofoam containers to be eaten standing up. The serving table was decorated with fresh flowers. Behind the table were the friends and family of the organizer, Sister Mary: people of all ages and colors busy serving with a smile. icon

Featured image: 337 Crocker, Los Angeles, 2016. Daily food distribution by Precious People Church, food from Whole Foods, Reverend Susan Booker. All photographs courtesy of the author