Research Report Impossible Choices: Teens and Food Insecurity in America
Susan J. Popkin, Molly M. Scott, Martha M. Galvez
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Food-insecure teens who don’t get enough to eat sometimes resort to extreme measures to cope with hunger—from saving school lunches for the weekend or going hungry so younger siblings can eat to stealing or trading sex for money to buy food. The most risky behaviors are by no means typical of all teens, even in the most distressed communities, but they illustrate the lengths to which some of the most desperate and food-insecure teens are willing to go to survive.

An estimated 6.8 million people ages 10 to 17 are food insecure, meaning they don’t have reliable access to enough affordable, nutritious food. Another 2.9 million are very food insecure, and roughly 4 million live in marginally food secure households, where the threat of running out of food is real.

Food insecurity takes a tremendous toll on teenagers. Poor nutrition—and the stress of hunger and poverty—can jeopardize their physical and mental health and development and their academic success. But despite the gravity and prevalence of teen food insecurity, we know very little about how these young people experience and cope with hunger.

In this report, we present findings from a small, exploratory study on how food insecurity affects teens (ages 13 to 18) and threatens their well-being. Across 20 focus groups in 10 diverse communities, we heard similar themes:

  • Teen food insecurity is widespread. Even in focus groups where participants were not food insecure, teens were aware of classmates and neighbors who regularly did not have enough to eat.
  • Teens fear stigma around hunger and actively hide it. Consequently, many teens refuse to accept food or assistance in public settings or from people outside a trusted circle of friends and family.
  • Food-insecure teens strategize about how to ease their hunger and make food last longer for the whole family. Some go over to friends’ or relatives’ houses to eat. Some 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 in food-insecure families routinely take on this role, going hungry so younger siblings can eat or finding ways to bring in food and money.
  • Teens overwhelmingly prefer to earn money through a formal job, but their job prospects are limited, particularly in high-poverty communities. And often, teens can’t make enough money to make a dent in family food insecurity.
  • When faced with acute food insecurity, teens in all but two of the communities said that youth engage in criminal behavior, ranging from shoplifting food directly to selling drugs and stealing items to resell for cash. These behaviors were most common among young men in communities with the most limited job options.
  • Teens in all 10 communities and in 13 of the 20 focus groups talked about some youth selling sex for money to pay for food. These themes arose most strongly in high-poverty communities where teens also described sexually coercive environments. Sexual exploitation most commonly took the form of transactional dating relationships with older adults.
  • In a few communities, teens talked about going to jail or failing school (so they could attend summer classes and get school lunch) as viable strategies for ensuring regular meals.

The story that emerged from conversations with these teens is one of limited options that leaves them with impossible choices. In this report, we use teens’ own words to tell this story and draw on our findings to make recommendations for policy and practice.

Teen-focused strategies to alleviate hunger and direct teens away from risky behavior include increasing nutrition assistance benefits, strengthening teen nutrition programs, creating more and better youth job opportunities, and empowering teens to create community-based solutions. Also, educators and police should be trained to recognize the trauma experienced by girls who are sexually exploited and provide counseling or referrals rather than treating them like offenders.

In the long term, the only way to end teen food insecurity is to address its root cause—family poverty—by improving access to jobs, providing better access to opportunity-rich neighborhoods, and strengthening the safety net when parents cannot earn enough to cover basic needs.

Research Areas Children and youth Social safety net
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center
Research Methods Community Engagement Resource Center