An estimated 6.8 million young people ages 10 to 17 struggle to have enough to eat, including 2.9 million who have very low food security. Urban Institute and Feeding America spent 3 years conducting focus groups with teenagers in 10 communities in an effort to get a more complete picture about how food insecurity impacts teenagers. They found that food insecure teenagers face impossible choices- often engaging in risky behavior just to survive.
During the focus groups, teens were asked questions about their observations of teen food insecurity in their communities, how young people get food, and risky behaviors, such as stealing or dealing drugs that teens may resort to during times of desperation. Several common themes emerged from the focus groups discussions:
- Teen food insecurity is widespread. Even teens that were not experiencing food insecurity themselves were aware of other teens that were.
- Teens fear the stigma associated with food insecurity and needing assistance. They may be less likely to access resources.
- Teens with younger siblings often take on the role of parent for younger siblings, ensuring they have enough to eat first and putting themselves second. Teens are often more aware of parent’s struggles with money and food insecurity than younger children.
- Teens faced with acute food insecurity reported sometimes engaging in criminal behavior such as stealing food, dealing drugs or reselling stolen items to make money.
It’s clear from the data collected in the focus groups that teen food insecurity is a multi-faceted issue that requires adding supports in multiple areas. Many nutrition programs focus on younger children so more emphasis should be placed on engaging teens in these programs, especially school meal programs. More employment options are also needed to provide teens with a way of earning money. Teens in the focus group indicated they would be glad to work but job opportunities are limited in their communities. Teens should be empowered and engaged to create programs for their communities. As a result of a focus group in Portland, a youth empowerment group is designing programming for teens in their own community. Addressing food insecurity in teens is clearly a challenge, but it’s clear that steps must be taken to provide further supports to this vulnerable population.
For more information, read the full report, Impossible Choices, from Urban Institute and Feeding America