It seems impossible, but hunger is prevalent in this supposed “land of plenty.” Susan Popkin, Molly Scott and Martha Galvez, authors of a new report on the impact of hunger on the teen population, state an estimated 6.8 million people ages 10 to 17 are food insecure, meaning they don’t have reliable access to enough affordable, nutritious food. They say another 2.9 million are “very food insecure, and roughly 4 million live in marginally food-secure households, where the threat of running out of food is real.
“Food-insecure teens who don’t get enough to eat sometimes resort to extreme measures to cope with hunger—from saving school lunches for the weekend or going hungry so younger siblings can eat, to stealing or trading sex for money to buy food,” the authors continue. “The most risky behaviors are by no means typical of all teens, even in the most distressed communities, but they illustrate the lengths to which some of the most desperate and food-insecure teens are willing to go to survive.”
The small, exploratory study shines a light on how food insecurity affects teens (ages 13 to 18) and threatens their well-being. They collected the following information across 20 focus groups in 10 diverse communities, with similar themes:
- Teen food insecurity is widespread. Even in focus groups where participants were not food insecure, teens were aware of classmates and neighbors who regularly did not have enough to eat.
- Teens fear stigma around hunger and actively hide it. Consequently, many teens refuse to accept food or assistance in public settings or from people outside a trusted circle of friends and family.
- Food-insecure teens strategize about how to ease their hunger and make food last longer for the whole family. Some go over to friends’ or relatives’ houses to eat. Some save their school lunch for the weekend.
- Parents try to protect teens from hunger and from bearing responsibility for providing for themselves or others. However, teens in food-insecure families routinely take on this role, going hungry so younger siblings can eat or finding ways to bring in food and money.
- Teens overwhelmingly prefer to earn money through a formal job, but their job prospects are limited, particularly in high-poverty communities. And often, they can’t make enough money to make a dent in family food insecurity.
- When faced with acute food insecurity, teens in all but two of the communities said that youth engage in criminal behavior, ranging from shoplifting food directly to selling drugs and stealing items to resell for cash. These behaviors were most common among young men in communities with the most limited job options.
- Teens in all 10 communities and in 13 of the 20 focus groups talked about some youth selling sex for money to pay for food. These themes arose most strongly in high-poverty communities where teens also described sexually coercive environments. Sexual exploitation most commonly took the form of transactional dating relationships with older adults.
- In a few communities, teens talked about going to jail or failing school (so they could attend summer classes and get school lunch) as viable strategies for ensuring regular meals.
For people who live in farming communities, this story may sound shocking, but poverty and hunger exist in these communities too – just ask your school administrators. In rural Iowa, a group of volunteers prepares weekend meals for teens, making sure additional food is included if they have younger siblings at home.
“The story that emerged from conversations with these teens is one of limited options that leaves them with impossible choices. In this report, we use teens’ own words to tell this story and draw on our findings to make recommendations for policy and practice.”
The authors suggest teen-focused strategies to alleviate hunger and direct them away from risky behavior, including increased nutrition assistance benefits, strengthened teen nutrition programs, more and better youth job opportunities, and empowering teens to create community-based solutions. They also believe educators and police should be trained to recognize the trauma experienced by girls who are sexually exploited and provide counseling or referrals rather than treating them like offenders.