Shoplifting, stealing and selling their bodies for sex. When hunger hits, some desperate teens in the U.S. are turning to extreme options to provide food for their families, says new research released Monday from Feeding America and the Urban Institute.
Two new reports, "Bringing Teens to the Table" and "Impossible Choices," document how widespread hunger is afflicting American teenagers, a demographic often overlooked in conversations about food security. About one in five children under 18 — including 6.8 million youths ages 10 to 17 — live in a household with limited or uncertain access to food, the research shows.
The drastic examples, while not representative of most teens' behavior, show the gravity of the issue of teen hunger and the danger it poses, say researchers who surveyed 193 youths in focus groups in five states, ranging from urban centers to rural suburbs.
Some of the youths said they or someone they know — mostly young men — have turned to shoplifting food, selling drugs or stealing items to sell.
The teens also reported knowing young women who have sold their bodies for food or had sex for money so they could buy food for their families.
Going to jail or failing a class in order to have to attend summer school were also some of the lengths teens went to.
Researchers do not know how common these extreme strategies are for hungry adolescents, but Susan Popkin, senior fellow at the Urban Institute, said hunger strikes teens in many different types of communities. “It seemed like just part of life to them,” she said.
While some research does exist on hunger problems for homeless teens and younger children, Popkin said few have looked at teen hunger in youths who have a home.
Emily Engelhard, managing director of research and evaluation at Feeding America, said the studies highlight the adult responsibilities teens have to take on during crucial developmental time in their lives.
“We have these kids who have to make big decisions and who have to think about challenging things on top of being in school and on top of the biological changes of being teenager,” Engelhard said.
Teens usually require the most food in their families, said Neville Golden, chief of adolescent medicine at Stanford and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' nutrition committee. However, the studies show they often go without a meal in order to let others eat.
“The teenage years are the years during which most growth and development occur outside of the first year of life. It’s a critical window of time,” he said. “Depriving a teenager of critical nutrients during that time can have long-lasting implications.”
Malnourishment often leads to developmental problems that can affect everything from vital signs to mental health, Golden said. Negative effects on educational development can also occur by distracting students from learning.
“Anyone who has been hungry knows what it feels like. … You can’t focus on other things. People who are hungry can’t learn and can’t focus on their education,” Golden said.
Golden said adolescents also face mental health issues related to their diets, such as pressure to feel attractive. Adding hunger to the list of diet-related concerns only further complicates the issue.
Many teens from the focus groups said they felt a stigma associated with being food insecure.
“Nobody wants to be the kid who has to ask the teacher in school for help. Nobody wants to be the kid who is going hungry,” Popkin said. “There’s a lot of shame around being hungry in the United States.”
As a result, many teenagers avoid asking for help or receiving public charitable assistance, such as church or community food pantries.
While certain programs such as food stamps do cover some of the costs of providing food for their families, the surveyed teens want to see an expansion of these programs and more age-specific options. Popkin said many teens would prefer being given more opportunities for finding jobs so they can provide food for their families with money they have earned, rather than going through assistance programs.
Combining food assistance with other community-building activities, such as movie nights, would help alleviate the stigma and provide food for teenagers, Engelhard said. Some teens in the studies cited options such as merging food programs with health clinics or community gardens.
Engelhard said ultimately the answer is twofold: Researchers have a responsibility to better understand the effects of hunger on teens and charitable organizations must expand food resource options available to youths.
The report “underscores the need for more research because we don’t really know what the long-term effects are for teens experiencing food insecurity,” she said.
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