The Salvation Army’s disaster food services program and its fleet of mobile kitchens (affectionately called “canteens”) are perhaps the most visible and recognizable aspect of The Salvation Army’s disaster work. In the wake of tragedy, the canteen is often the first sign that The Salvation Army is on scene and delivering disaster assistance. For many, encountering a canteen may also be their first meeting with The Salvation Army.
The Salvation Army’s disaster work began in the United States in Galveston, Texas, after the hurricane of 1900. Galveston was virtually destroyed and suffered the loss of over 5,000 of its residents. The National Commander at the time, Frederick Booth-Tucker, ordered Salvation Army Officers from across the country to proceed to the disaster site to provide spiritual counsel and practical assistance. The Army’s first food service was performed not from the deck of a sophisticated mobile kitchen, but by caring people with water and coffee who walked the streets, hoping to give just a bit more energy to those suffering and those who arrived to help the city recover from its tragedy.
From these beginnings, The Salvation Army has expanded its capacity throughout the United States to provide safe and efficient food service in times of disaster. After Galveston, early Salvationists developed simple trucks and other vehicles to rush food and drink to firefighters and other rescue workers during incidents. These early trucks developed over the decades into highly sophisticated and specialized pieces of disaster machinery. New canteens also vary in design, resulting in specialized units for both urban and rural assignments. And supplementing these units, The Salvation Army has invested in several tractor-trailer sized field kitchens for added capacity during catastrophic events.
Food delivery systems have also evolved. Salvation Army disaster workers still prepare meals on the canteen. But in larger incidents, the Salvation Army may utilize a “hub-and-spoke” system, preparing meals at a central location and using its canteens to distribute the food throughout the disaster area. In providing food, The Salvation Army seldom works alone. Partners organizations stand alongside Salvation Army disaster workers and prepare many of the meals The Salvation Army serves.
While the canteen may be the symbol of Salvation Army disaster services, food may also be served at fixed feeding sites, such as an Army corps building, camp, or shelter. In a pinch, even the back of Salvation Army corps van can be pressed into service to deliver sandwiches, snacks, and sodas to needy disaster survivors.
By Jeff Jellets, Southern Territorial Disaster Coordinator