Meal Programs and Food Banks: What’s the Difference?

According to, Seattle is home to approximately 100+ emergency food programs. The majority of these programs are Meal Programs, with 77 individual programs identified by the City. A smaller minority (36) are Food Banks.  Yet, when emergency food services are mentioned, food banks are what the majority of people think of, and food banks receive the majority of the cities resources. For every $1 the City of Seattle gives in support of meal programs, $5.90 is given to food banks.

At OSL, through our work as the Chair of the Meals Partnership Coalition for the past 16 years, we know that both Meal Programs and Food Banks are two crucial, but drastically different, components to the food safety net in our community. OSL works to educate the public about the differences, and to strive towards a more equitable distribution of resources for these two different groups.

Types of Services Provided

As individuals, we all need to secure food for ourselves and our families. When a housed individual is hungry, they are able to choose whether or not they go to the grocery store to stock their cupboards or to a restaurant if the need for a meal is immediate. If you have an empty kitchen and the skills to cook, , going to the grocery store is appropriate. If you are currently hungry, are away from home, do not know how to cook, are running short on time, or your kitchen is being remodeled, you will more than likely head to a restaurant to meet your meal needs.

Food banks and meal programs work in much the same way.

In Seattle, some Food Banks have taken the Grocery Store model. The food banks provide a grocery store setup where guests can  “shop” for the food that they need and want. Other food banks hand out food in pre-packaged bags to clients at predetermined times and locations throughout the week. However, the food that is distributed through food banks is in its raw form and requires a kitchen to prepare it into a meal.  This preparation requires cooking skills, storage space, and access to a kitchen where one can turn “ingredients” into “meals”.

Individuals that do not have a home, a kitchen to cook in, or basic cooking skills, often turn to meal programs to meet their food needs. Meals prepared at OSL are prepared by culinary professionals who understand the nuances of nutrition and great taste. Our meals are prepared in health department compliant commercial kitchens, which ensure that each meal is safe for public consumption. We hold our organization to a standard higher than most commercial kitchens, using non-biotoxic cleaning supplies, steam cleaning in addition to sanitization. Our kitchens are free of high allergen risk foods and materials, such as nuts, latex and shellfish. We work hard to insure that we are not creating any additional health stress for our guests, many of whom are already health compromised from life of poverty, whether housed or un-housed. Our meals are praised by our guests for their great taste, as well as for their nutritional density by community leaders.

OSL also works to educate those who are lacking basic cooking skills and reliant on donated commodities. A few years ago, our staff was approached by a client at the Outdoor Meal Site, praising the taste of the meal, a simple three bean chili, with cornbread and all the fixings. She asked our chefs how she could make it with the beans she received from the food bank, because no matter how she cooked them, she could never get them soft enough. This client did not know that she had to soak the beans first. We wonder out loud how many of the thousands pounds of dried beans that food banks distribute are going in the trash simply because people do not know how to prepare them. OSL offers cooking classes to low to no income individuals who want to know how to make fantastic meals out of donated food; after all, this is our excellence. Our chefs craft thousands of amazing meals each week out of state commodities, restaurant excess and donated goods. We never know what we are going to get, and the creativity that funnels around our kitchens is amazing!

In addition, Meal Program meals are made accessible by the ready delivery of meals throughout the region. Unlike Food Banks, which often require their guests to visit them, meal programs understand the transportation challenges our guests experience and thus have the ability to deliver hot meals across the region. OSL’s Food In Motion (FIM) serves as a model for these mobile meal programs. Covering a network from Lake City to Renton, from West Seattle to the Redmond, FIM make daily deliveries of nutritionally dense meals to many partner programs who serve our food insecure neighbors.


As food insecurity throughout the nation and our region grows, the ability of Emergency Food Providers to meet those needs must also grow. While Food Banks provide food services to a great number of people, it is imperative to remember that Meal Programs provide a different, but equally important, service to the food insecure and hungry in our community. Many of our guests at OSL do not have access to safe cooking facilities, nor do they have the training to prepare nutritionally dense meals. Meals programs, like OSL, make immediate access to food possible for our neighbors.

We encourage you to help OSL provide adequate representation and access to the resources that meal programs need in order reach more of our community members. Together, we can ensure everyone in our region has access to nutritionally dense meals.


Support our work.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *