Fact Check

Michelle Obama at Soup Kitchen

Photograph shows Michelle Obama serving a government funded soup kitchen meal to a person with an expensive cell phone?

Published Jun 14, 2009

Claim:   Photograph shows Michelle Obama serving a government funded soup kitchen meal to a person with an expensive cell phone.



[Collected via e-mail, June 2009]

Recently Michelle Obama went to serve food to the homeless at a government funded soup kitchen.

Click photo to enlarge

Cost of a bowl of soup at homeless shelter: $0.00 dollars

Having Michelle Obama Serve you your soup: $0.00 dollars

Snapping a picture of a homeless person who is receiving a government funded meal while taking a picture of the first lady using his $500 Black Berry cell phone and $100.00 per month cellular service: Priceless


Origins:   The above-displayed photograph is genuine, a snapshot taken on an occasion in March 2009 when Michelle Obama spent some time serving lunch to men and women at Miriam's Kitchen, a social service agency in Washington D.C., as part of the First Lady's effort to "spotlight local organizations, connect with the city and help those in need amid the economic crisis." However, all the assumptions and implications of the text accompanying this picture are incorrect or unsubstantiated. To wit:

  • The photograph does not depict anyone "receiving a government funded meal": Miriam's Kitchen is a privately funded organization with the goal of "providing individualized services that address the causes and
    consequences of homelessness in an atmosphere of dignity and respect"; it is not government run or taxpayer funded.
  • A cell phone capable of capturing images (even a BlackBerry Pearl) is not necessarily a "$500 phone" with a "$100 per month cellular service." Many much more affordable options are available, including cellular providers who give free phones to low-income customers under the Lifeline assistance program. So a homeless person might very well carry a cell phone, as Scott Schenkelberg, the Executive Director of Miriam's Kitchen, observed when questioned about this photograph during an interview:

    Q: Since the First Lady's visit, both your guests and your food have been the subject of some criticism within the blogosphere. For example, some critics noted that
    one of your guests had a cell phone and suggested that it was inappropriate to serve free food to someone who could afford a cell phone.

    A: I suspect some people don't understand how inexpensive cell phones are, or how critical they are to this population. These days, you can purchase a cell phone at 7-11 for $10, then pay for minutes as you go. Our clients have a very fragile safety net. Many of them don't have shelter and are extremely vulnerable. For them, cell phones could literally be a lifeline. If they're looking for a job, the cell phone would also be incredibly important — can you even imagine trying to apply for a job without a phone number? Cell phones simply aren't luxuries anymore. If a guest can scrape together some money to purchase a cell phone, I think that's wonderful.

  • The assumption that a truly homeless person wouldn't have (or couldn't afford) a cell phone is also a mistaken one. As Scott Schenkelberg noted, the ranks of the homeless served by organizations such as Miriam's Kitchen include not just the long-term, chronically homeless, but also the "newly homeless": those who had recently been getting by economically until a sudden job loss or other reversal left them with nowhere to go:

    Until recently, we served mostly the chronically homeless, people who had fallen out of the economy long ago. More recently, we've been seeing more new faces, people who just fell into homelessness or other hard times. These people are generally high-functioning individuals who were hurt by the poor economy. It's very troubling to see previously self-sufficient people coming to Miriam's Kitchen in such high numbers.

Last updated:   16 June 2009


    Brown, DeNeen L.   "For a Day, First Lady Becomes a Lunch Lady."

    Washington Post.   6 March 2009   (p. C10).

    Sweet, Lynn.   "Can Michelle Influence what We Eat, Too?"

    Chicago Sun-Times.   6 March 2009   (p. C10).

    Associated Press.   "First Lady Puts Service on the Menu."

    The Australian.   7 March 2009.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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