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Is It Possible to Eat Healthy While Homeless?

Sara Temple, BSN, RN

Eating a diet rich in nutrients while avoiding too much salt, sugar, and fat is important for everyone. Healthy eating can reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke, diabetes, some types of cancer, and other medical issues. People feel better when they eat more healthy foods. A balanced diet includes fruits and vegetables, lean meats, dairy, and whole grains.

Many people have a goal to eat healthfully but often encounter barriers to their desired change in diet. Perhaps they want to lose weight, help control the risk of diseases, or fit into their clothes a little better. Convenient foods, cravings for sweets, lack of time or motivation, and just feeling overwhelmed are reasons people cite for not sticking to a healthy diet. Now add homelessness into the mix and it seems impossible to maintain a healthy and nutritious diet.

In the state of Iowa, 1 out of every 14 people and 1 out of every 9 children face hunger ( There are many available programs to provide food to people in need. However, it can feel very challenging to keep and maintain a healthy lifestyle when facing financial or housing hardships. Soup kitchens and shelters are common sources of meals. They provide food that is typically donated and stretch their budgets to feed as many as they can. Fresh produce and meat are often more expensive, have a shorter shelf life, and are more difficult to store, so soup kitchens offer the best meals they can with the resources available to them. While it may seem difficult to eat healthy at a soup kitchen, it can be done. Try asking for lower calorie options, meals made with low sugar or salt for diabetics or those with high blood pressure, or vegetarian or gluten-free choices. These may not always be available, but it doesn’t hurt to inquire and it also indicates that there is an interest and a need for such options.

There are some easy ways that people experiencing homelessness can modify their diets to become more healthy. Farmers’ markets are a great source of fresh produce in season and SNAP benefits can be used there. If fresh fruits and vegetables are unavailable or cost-prohibitive, consider using canned vegetables with no added salt and canned fruits in juice or no added sugar. Shelf-stable foods such as whole grain cereals and brown rice are good high-fiber options that will aid in a healthy digestive system. When it comes to protein sources, try to choose lean meats such as chicken or fish over red meats. If fresh meat isn’t available, canned chicken or tuna can be used and peanut butter or beans are also excellent sources of protein. These types of foods can be eaten even without access to cooking facilities or appliances.

It is not just those experiencing homelessness who may need assistance with food. Information about government programs in the state of Iowa can be found at Iowa State University has a program that offers cooking and nutrition classes to assist in developing healthy dietary habits. Other local options include food banks and pantries located at various churches, veterans’ organizations, pregnancy services, and community centers. These food benefits can often be obtained simply by showing identification and completing an application. Some locations also offer clothing and toiletries. One wonderful resource is the Cultivate Hope Corner Store located in NW Cedar Rapids. This non-profit grocery store aims to promote healthy eating by reducing prices on produce, meat, and dairy products as well as offering healthy prepared meals, cooking classes, and there is even a free produce section for those in need of it. Anyone who does not have access to the Internet and is interested in learning more about these and other programs may try their local library or use the computers available at Willis Dady.



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