It’s a familiar and heartbreaking narrative. But it’s one you’ve likely only heard about developing countries, not the United States.
Some low-income U.S. teens who are desperate for food are engaging in transactional sex with older, wealthy adults in order to get something to eat, according to a report released Monday by Feeding America, a nonprofit food bank network, and the Urban Institute research group. While these teens have access to food banks and other resources, overwhelming stigma and logistical challenges often keep them from taking advantage of such programs.
These were the extreme cases reflected in the report, titled “Impossible Choices: Teens and Food Insecurity In America,” which details the coping strategies of teens who are food insecure. The findings were released alongside a second study, focusing on solutions to teen hunger.
Based on the data gathered, experts agree that federal programs and nonprofits need to take aggressive action to better protect this vulnerable demographic. The study authors admit that the most extreme situations are far from the norm, but they’re not totally sure how many young people face such circumstances.
“We don’t know how prevalent this is,” Emily Engelhard, managing director of research and evaluation at Feeding America, told The Huffington Post of these cases. “If there are two or three teens that are engaging in this behavior, or if there are 1,000 or more, that’s still too many. It’s really important for us to understand the extremes that teens are going to so that we can try and do a better job of helping them.”
There are nearly 7 million children between the ages of 10 and 17 in America who struggle with hunger. For these two new studies, researchers interviewed about 200 adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18 representing a range of poverty levels across 10 U.S. communities.
Some of those interviewed said they resort to “dating” significantly older men and, in exchange, get meals, material goods or cash.
“It’s really like selling yourself,” a teenage girl in Portland, Oregon, told the researchers. “You’ll do whatever you need to do to get money or eat.”
Some hopeless teens said they went so far as to intentionally get arrested because they knew that being in jail would guarantee them meals.
“It might not be the best food, might not be the best place to be, but it’s a roof over your head,” the girl from Portland told researchers. “And every single day they eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”
Others shoplifted, sold drugs or stole, among other risky behaviors.
Feeding America and the Urban Institute decided to examine this issue because research on the topic is sorely lacking. Along with the “Impossible Choices” report, the groups released another report Monday, “Bringing Teens to the Table,” examining teens’ relationships with food programs and their ideas on how to improve them. Before these reports were released, most of the information available about the issue of hunger among youths relates to children under 6.
This has been the case despite the fact that adolescence is considered one of the “critical transitions” in life, according to the World Health Organization. That period of development is marked by a tremendous amount of growth and change that are second only to infancy.
The adolescents interviewed for both studies came from varied backgrounds, but they were all receiving some sort of support. They were either getting free or reduced-price lunch at their school or living with a family that had received food stamps or charitable food assistance at some point in the last year.
Though there are safety nets in place, they often don’t work for this demographic.
Teenage students may get free lunch at school, but many go without breakfast. Nearly half of all low-income U.S. students skipped the first meal of the day in 2014. That was due to the fact that they couldn’t get to school in time when the meal was served, or they were too ashamed to accept it in front of their other friends, according to a report released last year by the Food Research and Action Center.
The shame surrounding handouts is particularly prevalent among teenagers. Many are reluctant to go to a food pantry, for example, because they don’t want to admit that their families are struggling, Engelhard told HuffPost.
“We definitely heard from a lot of the teens that don’t want to get food at the pantry. They don’t want to depict their family as needing help,” Engelhard said. “It’s embarrassing.”
Complicated logistics are also a major hindrance for food insecure teenagers.
Some pantries are only open during school and work hours, which precludes family members from accessing those services.
During the summer, food insecure teens are even more at risk, since they don’t have school meals to rely on. Community programs often aren’t available in rural areas, and setting up food programs typically comes with so much red tape that it’s nearly impossible to get a grassroots group off the ground.
Teens who face such significant challenges, however, demonstrate an enormous amount of resourcefulness.
Many of those interviewed said they take the helm in their families when it comes to getting food. They’ll clip coupons, develop a food budget and handle the grocery shopping. Some teens do whatever it takes ― even if that means going without food themselves ― to ensure that their younger siblings get enough to eat and aren’t aware of how dire the situation is in the household.
Food-insecure teenagers are also eager to put forward solutions that could help curb the issue.
In Portland’s New Columbia neighborhood, for example, Feeding America helped form a group of food-insecure teens who want to develop more suitable food service programs. After a number of sessions, the Youth Community Advisory Board (YCAB) suggested creating events where free food isn’t the predominant theme.
Instead of having a food pick-up event, for instance, the teens said they would prefer attending a movie night or a basketball game where dinner happens to be served.
The YCAB members also helped spearhead a program called Harvest Share, which launched in January. Every month, the Oregon Food Bank drops off fresh organic food, which the teens volunteer to distribute to families in need in the New Columbia area. The teens also take home food for their families.
During its first round, the program reached 116 households, a majority of which hadn’t accessed charitable food services before.
“The teens hoped not only for increased access to emergency food,” the researchers found, “but also for a safe, supportive environment to develop the skills needed serve as leaders and change agents in their communities.”