It’s not news that traditional school meal programs for students in poverty don’t work as well for busy and hyper-self-conscious teenagers, but new research throws the problem into graphic relief: U.S. teenagers in 10 communities shoplifted, sold drugs, or traded sex to get enough food for themselves and their families.
Some 6.8 million students ages 10 to 17 live in homes without reliable access to enough food, according to two new studies by the Urban Institute. While more schools are providing free meals to all students to reduce the stigma of poverty, researchers found teenagers are still far less likely to know about and participate in food support programs either in or out of school. Moreover, the researchers found even when students were enrolled in food programs like the federal supplemental nutrition assistance program, the benefits often did not fully cover families, and older students often turned over their own meals to younger siblings.
When food runs low at her house, one Chicago teenager told researchers she will “try my friends or something ... see if I can get at least like two packs of noodles or something so we can all split it or something. Or I will go without a meal if that is the case, as long as my two young siblings is good, that’s all that really matters to me.”
Without sufficient food, students skip meals, string together food from family or close friends, and even turn to high-risk behaviors to get enough to eat.
Researchers conducted focus groups with nearly 200 13- to 18-year-olds in 10 communities nationwide, from Chicago, Los Angeles, and the District of Columbia to Eastern Oregon and rural North Carolina. All of the groups included at least some students who had experienced food insecurity in the last year.
Strategies to Avoid Hunger Put Students at Risk
While all of the students said they preferred to get a formal job to make ends meet, the researchers found youth unemployment was higher than the national average of 27 percent in 8 out of 10 of the communities studied, and in most of them child labor laws restricted employment for students under 16.
While prior research estimated only about 4 percent of adolescents have traded sex for money, the researchers found girls in 7 out of 10 communities studied described “highly coercive sexual environments” in which there was some outright prostitution and stripping for food or money, but also often exploitive relationships: “Like if I had sex with you, you have to buy me dinner tonight ... that’s how girls deal with the struggle,” explained one North Carolina boy in the study. “That’s better than taking money, because if they take money, they will be labeled a prostitute.”
Boys were less likely to trade sex for food than girls, researchers found, but more likely to steal, either food or small items easily sold for cash. One girl in Champaign, Ill., told researchers she sympathized with one classmate who robbed her: “The kid who stole my phone, he’d been reported a bunch of times. He had so much pressure on him. That was the easiest way to get the money.”
The researchers recommended community and education officials do more to target food supports for teenagers, beyond holistic programs like SNAP. For example, the Urban institute and the nonprofit group Feeding America, which co-authored one of the studies, are piloting a community advisory board of teenagers in a Portland, Ore. neighborhood to work with area food banks and welfare agencies to identify ways to deliver food to teenagers and provide food centers that help them avoid stigma.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.