New Study Investigates Coping Methods and Consequences of Teen Food Insecurity

Research by the Urban Institute and Feeding America® suggests teens facing hunger struggle with stigma and shame and assume adult responsibilities to get enough food for themselves and their families.

September 12, 2016


Teen food insecurity is threatening American youth and their well-being, according to two new reports by the Urban Institute and Feeding America. The reports reveal that low-income teens are aware of their parents’ struggles and often share in their worries and efforts to protect the youngest and most vulnerable members of the household by shielding younger siblings from hunger. Teens engage in various coping strategies to deal with food scarcity, including risky and potentially dangerous behaviors.

Nearly seven million children ages 10-17 struggle with hunger in America. While there is significant literature on food insecurity and children, most of this research has focused on the risks to and impact on children under age 6. This new research examines several topics related to the impact of food insecurity in teens’ lives.

The findings are based on focus group conversations with 193 13-18 year olds in 10 communities across the country and are presented through two reports. The first report, Bringing Teens to the Table, by Elaine Waxman, Susan J. Popkin, and Martha Galvez, explores how teens help their families acquire food during financially challenging times; their experiences with school, summer, and charitable feeding programs; and the ideas teens have for addressing food insecurity in their communities. The second report, Impossible Choices: Teens and Food Insecurity in America, by Popkin, Galvez, and Molly Scott, takes a deeper look at coping strategies teens use when facing food insecurity. Those strategies include engaging in criminal activity or transactional dating relationships that can allow desperate teens to secure food and other resources they need to get by.

Key findings from the reports include the following:

  • Teen food insecurity is widespread. Even when focus group participants had little direct experience with food insecurity, teens knew classmates and neighbors who did not have enough to eat on a regular basis.
  • Teens fear stigma around hunger and hide it. Many teens facing hunger refuse to accept food or assistance in public settings or from people outside of trusted friends and family.
  • Although parents try to protect teens from hunger and from bearing responsibility for providing for themselves or others, teens in food-insecure families routinely take on this role. They find ways to bring food into the household and sometimes skip meals to provide food for their younger siblings.
  • Teens would overwhelmingly prefer to earn money through a formal job. However, prospects for youth employment are limited in most of the communities surveyed—particularly in those with the highest poverty rates. Teens often cannot make enough money with odd jobs to make a dent in family food insecurity.
  • When faced with acute food insecurity, teens in all but two of the communities reported that youth engage in criminal behavior, ranging from shoplifting food to selling drugs or stealing items to resell for cash. These behaviors were most common among young men in communities with the most limited employment options.
  • Teens in all 10 communities talked about some young people “selling their body” or using “sex for money” to make ends meet. However, these themes were strongest in high-poverty communities. Sexual exploitation most commonly took the form of transactional dating relationships with older adults.
  • Food-insecure teens strategize about how to lessen their hunger and make food last longer for the whole family. They turn to friends or relatives for meals, or save at least part of the meals provided at school to ensure that they have at least something to eat during the weekend.
  • In a few communities, teens talked about going to jail or failing school as viable strategies for ensuring regular meals.

Teens in the focus groups shared their ideas about ways programs could improve to better reach teens in need, and the Urban Institute and Feeding America have been engaging teens in Portland, Oregon, to design and launch a pilot program to reduce stigma and increase teens’ access to food.

Feeding America is the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization, which annually provides free meals and groceries to more than 46 million people (or 1 in 7 Americans), including 12 million children and seven million seniors. The study is supported by ConAgra Foods Foundation.


To access the Bringing Teens to the Table report, visit  To access the Impossible Choices: Teens and Food Insecurity in America report, visit


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About Feeding America

Feeding America® is the largest hunger-relief organization in the United States. Through a network of more than 200 food banks, 21 statewide food bank associations, and over 60,000 partner agencies, food pantries and meal programs, we helped provide 5.3 billion meals to tens of millions of people in need last year. Feeding America also supports programs that prevent food waste and improve food security among the people we serve; brings attention to the social and systemic barriers that contribute to food insecurity in our nation; and advocates for legislation that protects people from going hungry. Visit, find us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.