In qualitative, focus-group-based surveys of youth around the country, the researchers found disturbingly consistent themes: Food insecurity is widespread among adolescents, the stigma it carries prevents many of them from asking for help, and teens sometimes turn to highly risky behavior—including shoplifting, selling drugs, and selling their own bodies—just to get enough to eat.
Perhaps most shocking about the researchers’ findings is how normalized food insecurity has become. “Not one kid said, ‘Oh, that doesn’t happen here,’” says Popkin, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and the lead author of the report. “This wasn’t just homeless kids, or kids living in poverty. These realities were something that kids were aware of wherever they lived, even if they themselves were not food insecure, even if they were stably housed.”
It should also be noted that even teens who don’t “look” hungry may struggle with food insecurity—both circumstances are consequences of economic disadvantage. In fact, research has found that U.S. teens from food-insecure households can be more likely to be obese than their peers who don’t struggle with hunger.
To begin to fill holes in the research, Popkin and her associates gathered nearly 200 teens between the ages of 13 and 18 in 20 separate focus groups across 10 communities around the U.S. to talk about their experiences with hunger—what they and their peers do to combat it, and how they could get better involved with food assistance programs.
The kids came from a wide cross-section of backgrounds: Some lived in public housing, others in market-rate rentals and houses. Some came from rural communities in the Midwest and the South (where food-insecurity rates are the highest, according to previous research by Feeding America), while others came from coastal urban centers, large and small. About half came from counties where child food insecurity was already known to be high, and the majority came from counties with higher-than-average poverty rates.
Popkin and her team found that teenagers aren’t really less sensitive than younger kids are to hunger’s harsh realities. In some ways, their developmental stage makes them even more vulnerable as they take on caregiving roles for their siblings, friends, and even parents. In the report, one girl living near Champaign, Illinois, describes how she’ll prioritize her younger siblings when food runs low: “Younger kids are still growing, so they shouldn’t have to worry about being hungry,” she says. “The older kids make sure they give to the younger kids first.”
Unlike younger peers, teenagers are also acutely aware of the food barriers their families face, such as a lack of grocery stores, limited transportation options, and the high price of healthy choices. “All the healthy stuff is expensive while all the junk food is cheaper,” one girl living in public housing in Eastern Oregon observes. “That’s why most Americans are overweight.” They see the trade-offs that their families and communities make in order to afford food on a regular basis. A girl in rural North Carolina talks about the self-imposed service cuts her family makes in order to afford food: “We would have one thing off a week—cable, heat, power,” she says.