According to analysis of data from Hunger in America 2014, there are approximately 6.7 million youth ages 10 through 19 among the 46.5 million individuals who receive assistance from the Feeding America network each year. To date, limited research has focused on teens’ experience with food insecurity, while service providers often report challenges in reaching teens through existing child hunger programs.
The Teens and Hunger Project is a research collaborative between Feeding America and the Urban Institute aimed at better understanding the ways in which teens experience and cope with food insecurity in the United States, made possible through funding from the ConAgra Foods Foundation. It used qualitative methods – a series of focus group discussions with teens, ages 13-18, in 10 low-income communities across the country – to explore three key questions:
(1) How do teens experience food insecurity in their families and communities?
(2) What coping strategies, including risky behavior, do they use to survive?
(3) What are barriers to teen participation in the current food assistance programs, and how could teens be better engaged?
Findings are presented in two companion briefs. Bringing Teens to the Table: A Focus on Food Insecurity in America explores how teens view the food environment, their experiences with food insecurity in their households and communities, and the barriers to participating in food assistance programs. Impossible Choices: Teens and Food Insecurity in America provides a deeper look at the coping strategies teens use when faced with food insecurity, including those that may put them at long-term risk.
Themes that emerged from the focus groups include:
- Teens are active participants in family food acquisition and management strategies.
- Teens fear stigma around hunger and actively hide it as much as they can.
- Although parents try to protect teens from hunger and from bearing responsibility for providing for themselves or others, teens in food-insecure families also routinely take on this role.
- Teens have a lot of opinions about school meal programs and ideas about how to strengthen them.
- Teens frequently perceive that charitable feeding programs are not available to their age group.
- Teens would overwhelmingly prefer to earn money through a formal job, though prospects for youth employment are extremely limited in most focus group communities.
- Some teens facing serious deprivation resort to strategies to get food that involve personal risk and potential long-term negative consequences, such as exhibiting criminal behavior or engaging in transactional dating relationships. While not at all representative of the behaviors of all food-insecure teens, these extreme examples signal the seriousness of teen hunger among some youth and the risks it poses.
- Teens are very aware of the broader economic challenges that are connected to food insecurity. They have a host of ideas about changes to the food system, public policy, school nutrition programs, and charitable responses that they believe would better meet the needs of food-insecure teens in their communities.