September 27, 2016
by Rosemary King

In July, I observed a food pantry distribution in Portland, Oregon. It took the form of a “Harvest Share”, or free farmer’s market, and was held in a large conference room at a local community center. Folding tables lined the walls, each stacked with an assortment of fresh food: cantaloupe, onions, collard greens, local cherries and more. Loaves of whole-wheat bread and plastic bins of salad were lined up in orderly rows. A volunteer stood behind each table, ready for people to arrive.

On the surface, this distribution looked not so different than others, but one key factor set it apart: teenagers were in charge.

The motivation behind this youth-led distribution grew from a study that has been ongoing since 2014. The study, conducted by Feeding America and the Urban Institute, has sought to gain deeper insight into teens’ experiences of food insecurity and to better reach this unique population. Though technically still children, teens face pressures not felt by younger kids. Consequently, teens can slip through the cracks of food assistance programs that may appear to cater only to those younger or older than them.

As part of the study, researchers conducted 20 focus groups in 10 communities across the U.S., engaging nearly 200 teens ages 13 to 18. Participants talked about the challenges facing teens in their community related to hunger and accessing nutritious food. Many talked about the stigma associated with using food assistance. And some mentioned risky behaviors in which some teens engage to ensure they had enough to eat.

While the focus groups shed light on the struggles faced by teens who face hunger, teens also expressed ideas for improvements and change.

One of the focus groups took place in New Columbia, a neighborhood in North Portland dedicated to providing affordable housing and opportunity for low-income individuals and families. With the aim of leveraging teens’ ideas and enthusiasm, researchers continued engaging with neighborhood residents to create a Youth Community Advisory Board (YCAB).

YCAB was composed of about a dozen teens.  It was formed with the ultimate goal of creating a food program that would better reach teens in the community. The Harvest Share food distributions that I visited is the program that YCAB has chosen to run in New Columbia, with food provided by the Oregon Food Bank, a member of the Feeding America network. But it is just the beginning. Down the road, YCAB hopes to combine food distributions with other activities to minimize stigma, like a basketball game, movie night, or cooking class. 

At Harvest Share, it was inspiring to see so many teens taking an active role in providing food to their neighbors, a role they have been fulfilling now since the Harvest Share launched in January. Over 30 teenagers volunteered that day to make the Harvest Share a success. And it was, serving over 100 households, as well as the families of the teen volunteers.

But food is not all the teens take away from the experience. They learn invaluable life skills in time management, leadership and communication as well. But perhaps most importantly, they take away a sense of immense pride. Despite their young age, inexperience and a lack of resources, these teenagers are becoming leaders in their community as a result of their own passion and hard work. 

I encourage you to read Bringing Teens to the Table, one of the reports recently released by Feeding America and the Urban Institute, to better understand the experiences, coping strategies, and viewpoints of teens facing hunger. Based on what I saw in Portland that day, I believe that teens around the nation can play a particularly powerful role in ending hunger – not only among their age group – but across the entire nation as well. Give them a chance to lead and, no doubt, they will.

To learn more about “Bringing Teens to the Table,” please click here.

*Rosemary King is a communications consultant for Feeding America.


Tags: Hunger Heroes , Food Bank Network , Oregon , Oregon Food Bank

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