Bringing Teens to the Table and Impossible Choices are the products of a research collaborative between the Urban Institute and Feeding America aimed at better understanding the ways in which teens experience and cope with food insecurity in the United States. It used qualitative methods—a series of focus group discussions with teens in low-income communities—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?
Twenty focus groups were held in 10 diverse communities across the country, spanning five states in the West, Midwest, and Southeast; public and market-rate housing; and large and small urban areas as well as urbanized clusters located in more rural parts of the country. A total of 193 youth participated in these discussions, with separate groups held for boys and girls in each site.
Bringing Teens to the Table: A Focus on Food Insecurity in America broadly covers the ways in which teens experience food insecurity, the strategies they employ, their experiences with government and charitable feeding programs and their ideas about improvements.
Impossible Choices: Teens and Food Insecurity in America more narrowly examines the risky behaviors in which some teens engage when resources are scarce.
The following are key findings from Bringing Teens to the Table and Impossible Choices:
- Teens are active participants in family food acquisition and management strategies. Getting the largest volume of food for the lowest price is the driving factor behind most food choices. Acquisition of healthier, higher quality foods is often sacrificed to stretch limited dollars. Fresh food, including produce, is often deemed both a luxury and a risky purchase, due to higher cost and risk of spoilage.
- Teen food insecurity is widespread. Even in focus groups where participants had little direct experience with food insecurity themselves, teens were aware of classmates and neighbors who regularly did not have enough to eat. These accounts are consistent with national data, which show that approximately one in five children under the age of 18 lives in food-insecure households.
- Teens fear stigma around hunger and actively hide it as much as they can. Consequently, many teens avoid food assistance delivered in publicly visible settings or from people outside of a trusted circle of friends and family. They feel embarrassed if others know that their families receive charitable help and repeatedly emphasize that incorporating food into other programming and services is a desirable approach.
- Food-insecure teens strategize about how to mitigate their hunger and make food last longer for the whole family. For example, they may go over to friends’ or relatives’ houses to eat, or they may save their school lunch for the weekend. They also look out for friends who may be struggling.
- 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. They find ways to bring food into the household and sometimes go without food to protect younger siblings.
- SNAP is an important source of support for many families, and benefits are valued because they allow households to acquire food by shopping in mainstream retail settings. Although they see SNAP as beneficial, teens also talk about the inability of families to stretch the benefits over an entire month and the loss of benefits when incomes improve only marginally.
- Teens have a lot of opinions about school meal programs and ideas about how to strengthen them. Many teens believe more resources should be devoted to improving the quality of the programs, but they also recognize that they are very important for many food-insecure teens and express concerns about students who they perceive need the school meals just to get by, particularly access to free or reduced price meals through the National School Lunch Program.
- Most teens in the focus groups seem unaware of summer feeding options, and some perceive them as largely programs for younger children. The lack of engagement with summer feeding stands in stark contrast to teens’ own reports that summer is a time when there is greater pressure on family food budgets.
- Teens frequently perceive that charitable feeding programs are not available to their age group. In some cases, they perceive that only adults can access charitable feeding programs, although adolescents may be responsible for acquiring household food resources. In other cases, programs like weekend backpacks are viewed as available only to younger kids.
- 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 they believe would better meet the needs of food-insecure teens in their communities.
- Teens would overwhelmingly prefer to earn money through a legitimate job. However, prospects for youth employment are extremely limited in most communities—particularly in those with the highest rates of poverty; and 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 said that youth engage in criminal behavior, ranging from shoplifting food directly to selling drugs and stealing to resell the items for cash. These behaviors were most common among young men in communities with the most limited employment options.
- Teens in all 10 communities and in 13 of the 20 focus groups talked in some way about “some girls selling their body” or “sex for money.” These themes came out most strongly in high poverty communities where teens also described sexually coercive environments (Popkin et al. 2016). Sexual exploitation most commonly took the form of transactional dating relationships with older men.
- In a few communities, teens talked about going to jail or flunking school as viable strategies for dealing with food insecurity.
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.