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Some low-income teens turn to risky behavior to cope with food insecurity

Sep 16, 2016

Child hunger is a problem that is widespread across the country. About 1 in 5 kids in the U.S. live in "food insecure" households, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

And if you follow State of Opportunity regularly, you know we've talked a lot about it. The gravity of the problem. Why it happens. How to fight it.

Just last week, I told you about recent data from the USDA that shows while 2014-2015 marked the biggest one-year improvement in reducing food insecurity since the Great Recession, about 15.8 million U.S. households still struggle to get enough food.

But two recent reports from the Urban Institute and Feeding America suggest that one group is falling through the cracks when it comes to fighting hunger: teenagers.

Researchers conducted 20 focus groups across the U.S. with kids from low-income families to talk about their experiences with hunger, what they and their peers do to combat it, and how they could get better involved with food assistance programs.

Nearly 7 million kids in the U.S. ages 10-17 struggle with hunger, according to Feeding America. And according to researchers, many of them to turn to risky, dangerous behavior just to get enough food to eat.

According to CityLab:

Though it’s not the norm, sometimes strategizing for food can lead to criminal behavior, especially in communities with extremely high poverty rates. Kids told researchers about shoplifting, robbing stores, or sliding a few extra items into their bags at self-checkout stations. And in all 10 communities, teens said that they were aware of some peers using sex to make ends meet. A boy in rural North Carolina explains: “When you’re selling your body, it’s more in disguise. Like if I had sex with you, you have to buy me dinner tonight… that’s how girls deal with the struggle… That’s better than taking money because if they take money, they will be labeled a prostitute.”

There are two challenges faced by teens dealing with food insecurity, according to researchers.

One is that programs that are often targeted toward younger children aren't always offered to teenagers. The other is that the stigma associated with services like the free lunch program often keeps teens from accepting help.

Susan Popkin is lead researcher of the Urban Institute. She told NPR:

It’s easy to line up little kids and give them a backpack filled with food. But you can’t really do that with teens. There are stigmas about not wanting to stand out. I think they’re often seen as too hard to get to. It's easier to get to little kids. They're all in school. They're certainly more cooperative. Teens are often seen as the problem. Not as part of the solution.

Teenagers are also more aware of the realities of hunger and the barriers their families face. According to CityLab:

In some ways, their developmental stage makes them even more vulnerable as they take on caregiving roles for their siblings, friends, and even parents. In the report, one girl living near Champaign, Illinois, describes how she’ll prioritize her younger siblings when food runs low: “Younger kids are still growing, so they shouldn’t have to worry about being hungry,” she says. “The older kids make sure they give to the younger kids first.” They see the trade-offs that their families and communities make in order to afford food on a regular basis. A girl in rural North Carolina talks about the self-imposed service cuts her family makes in order to afford food: “We would have one thing off a week—cable, heat, power,” she says.

But teens try to cope with hunger in benign ways, too. According to Feeding America, teens would overwhelmingly prefer to earn money through a formal job. But for the past 15 years, the number of teens who have jobs has declined, along with their earnings.

So, what can be done to help these overlooked adolescents?

Study authors recommend adjusting SNAP benefits so older kids get a quantity of food proportional to their age, experimenting with ways to feed kids during summer break, and better supporting teen employment.

Lanarion Norwood is a freshman at Morehouse College in Atlanta. His family struggled with hunger when he was a kid. Summing up the importance of teen hunger, he told NPR:

It is real. It is serious. And it should be addressed. It affects the mind, it affects the body, and it affects the soul. Without that, what do you have?