The nonprofit Urban Institute's new study, Impossible Choices: Teens and Food Insecurity in America used paired, single-gender focus groups in 10 urban communities to learn about the hunger and food strategies of children aged 10 to 17 whose families received food assistance (the total sample size was 193).
The subjects were racially mixed; some groups were majority African American, others were majority Latinx, and others were majority white — but there was no substantial variation in the findings regardless of racial makeup.
The study's findings are extremely disturbing. The subjects reported that they and their friends and family members routinely resorted to selling sex (for girls) and committing petty theft and selling drugs (for boys and girls) in order to get enough to eat; they also reported hoarding their school meals to eat at bedtime in order to stave off sleep-disrupting hunger; as well as skipping meals so that their younger siblings could get enough to eat.
Young teenaged girls routinely traded sex with older, wealthier men in exchange for food. Some leave school for full-time sex-work in order to subsidize their families.
A separate study, cited in the Urban Institute's paper, estimates that 6.8 million American children aged 10-17 are in food insecurity. This is in part due to more stringent rules for food aid and welfare (this campaign was waged by President Bill Clinton and taken up aggressively by his successors) and also to a gap in emergency coverage that provides for very young children, but not older ones.
Teens feel a sense of shame around hunger and hide it. Many refuse to accept food or assistance in public settings or from people outside a trusted circle of friends and family.
Food-insecure teens think about how to mitigate their hunger and make food last longer for the whole family. They go to friends' or relatives' houses to eat and 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 routinely take on this role, going hungry so younger siblings can eat or finding ways to bring in food and money.
Teens would overwhelmingly prefer to earn money through a formal job but prospects for youth employment are extremely limited.
In a few communities, teens talked about going to jail or failing school as strategies for ensuring regular meals.
Impossible Choices: Teens and Food Insecurity in America
[Susan J. Popkin, Molly M. Scott and Martha M. Galvez/Urban Institute]
US teens often forced to trade sex work for food, study finds
[David Smith/The Guardian]
(via Naked Capitalism)