After the loss of a family member, Ashley Smith, a 23-year-old mother, and her two children, three-year-old Summer and two-year-old James, moved into a women and children’s shelter in West Philadelphia.i One of Ashley’s concerns when the family moved into the shelter was that she couldn’t cook meals for her children anymore. Ashley described the meals in the shelter as lacking variety; the Smith family ate many of the same meals week after week, some of which they did not enjoy. Multiple cooks at the shelter made it difficult for the family to adjust to different cooking and preparation styles. Some meals tasted bland, while others were full of seasoning. Although Ashley always tried to show her children that home-cooked meals were better than fast food, without the ability to cook her own meals she sometimes found herself buying prepared food (when she could afford it) to escape the monotony of shelter meals. Unfortunately, the local community, with its predominance of corner stores and fast food, did not offer many fresh, healthy options.
Since shelters provide families with three meals a day, it might be easy to assume that families eat nutritious, well-balanced meals and do not experience issues of food insecurity or obesity when they are staying in shelter. However, many families living in shelters struggle with obesity and food insecurity on a daily basis. During focus groups conducted with families living in shelter, The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) Homeless Health Initiative (HHI), a health outreach program for women and children living in West Philadelphia shelters, learned that many families are dissatisfied with shelter meals and struggle with issues of weight and obesity. HHI also learned that, like the Smiths, families staying in West Philadelphia shelters have all experienced some type of loss – loss of home and sometimes loss of relationships, safety or health – which can lead to feelings of disempowerment, especially in a shelter environment characterized by authority and strict rules