Hungry teenagers in the US are taking frightening measures to eat, says new report

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In communities across the U.S., hunger is forcing teenagers to make desperate choices: trading sex for money or going to bed hungry? Stealing a bike off the street or telling your younger siblings that there's nothing for dinner?

According to a new report from Washington, D.C.-based think-tank the Urban Institute and nonprofit Feeding America, some teens in food-insecure families just aren't getting the sustenance they need — and they're risking their futures and their lives to survive.

Over the course of three years, the Urban Institute held focus groups with 193 teens in 10 different communities. What it found was that teens aren't benefitting from the programs that help younger kids from food insecure families, and, because of their age, the responsibility of providing for their families falls on their shoulders.

The usual solutions just aren't enough: For lots of food-insecure teens, the easiest way to stave off hunger is by eating the cheapest food available — even when that means eating what the Urban Institute calls "low-quality food products."

"When you're broke, you get the dollar menu," one teen interviewed for the report said.

Hungry teenagers in the US are taking frightening measures to eat, says new report
Wendy's "4 for $4" deal
Source: Candice Choi/AP

Fresh, quality food is more expensive, and often hard to get to for kids who live in neighborhoods without supermarkets that stock fresh produce, also known as "food deserts." Eating fast food or processed snacks bought at a convenience store is both a matter of necessity and circumstance. But even that isn't enough for some families, who are still, according to the report, "running out of food by the middle of the month."

According to the report, research has shown that teens either don't know about resources that can help them access free food or assume they're ineligible (like in cases of food pantries that require recipients to be over 18).

How they're coping: In every community where the study's focus groups met, teens described going "outside of the legal economy" in order to get the food they need — shoplifting food; stealing items to resell for a profit; even purposefully failing school to maintain access to free food programs. The study also found that many teens skip meals so they're able to provide for their younger siblings.

And in 13 out of 20 of the study's focus groups, teen participants mentioned trading sex for money or meals.

Why they can't just get jobs: Teens in low-income communities may wind up competing against adults for the same minimum-wage jobs — except that teenagers have the added stress of working around a school schedule. "It can be difficult," one Los Angeles teen quoted in the report explained. "We don't have experience. No one is willing to give it to us and it's hard to get a job when all they want is experience."

Hungry teenagers in the US are taking frightening measures to eat, says new report
Demonstrators in California advocate for a living wage in 2013.
Source: Ben Margot/AP

So, if they can't get minimum wage jobs, they do "under the table" work, or try to make money doing small jobs like babysitting or yard work. But in the absence of such work, the Urban Institute found, some seek out more dangerous means.

Hungry teenagers in the US are taking frightening measures to eat, says new report
A family picks up aid at a California food pantry in 2014.
Source: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

What it means: The study looked at only 193 teens — so it's hard to gauge how ubiquitous these experiences are for other adolescents in similar situations. But the Institute cited an expert who estimated that there are 6.8 million kids in the U.S. between the ages of 10 and 17 who "struggle to have enough to eat." Of that number, 2.9 million kids have "very low food security."

And, even if not all of those nearly 3 million kids turn to the same risky behaviors in order to survive, another study from 2016 found that growing up with food insecurity was associated with an increased incidences of mental health problems and conditions like obesity.

The study alleges that policymakers have largely focused their efforts on how food insecurity affects young children, but failed to adequately address the issue as it pertains to adolescents.

"The ramifications of food insecurity are innumerable," reads the report. "But looking specifically at teenagers, we know they are at a critical stage of their development and that food insecurity undermines their physical and emotional growth, stamina, academic achievement, and job performance."

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Human trafficking issues around the world
In this Monday, May 11, 2015, photo 16-year-old Sadik Hussein, left, and 17-year-old Noor Alam, roll-play as they retell how they were beaten at a human trafficking boat, hours after returning to their homes in Thetkabyin Village, north of Sittwe, western Rakhine state, Myanmar. They say they escaped from a human trafficking boat, where they sat for days with their knees bent into their chest, pressed up against other sweaty bodies in the cabin’s rancid heat. They say members of the crew paced back and forth with iron rods and belts, hitting anyone who dared speak or even vomit from the nauseating stench and rolling waves. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)
Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a news conference at the State Department in Washington, Monday, July 27, 2015, where he released the 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report. The State Department has taken Malaysia and Cuba off its blacklist of countries failing to combat modern-day slavery, leaving the U.S. open to criticism that politics is swaying the often-contentious rankings in its annual human trafficking report. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
SHAMLAPUR, BANGLADESH - JULY 4: A photograph of Rohingya trafficking victim Mohammad Aiaz is seen July 4, 2015 in Shamlapur, Bangladesh. On March 5, 2015 Aiaz met a man who promised to take him to a good job in Malaysia for free. He left Bangladesh with 13 other Rohingya. A few days after that his mother, Lila Begum, got a phone call from her son saying he was on the ship and that she needed to pay a man in Teknaf 200,000 taka ($2,570) or he would be killed. She managed to pay 175,000 but she has not heard from her son since. In the past months thousands of Rohingya have landed on the shores of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, many of them by way of Bangladesh. The Rohingya pay up to $2,000 to traffickers, and they sail out from Bangladesh's southern coastline on fishing boats to meet larger ships in the deep sea that will take them to Malaysia. UNHCR estimates that there are more than 300,000 Rohingya living in Bangladesh. (Photo by Shazia Rahman/Getty Images)
In this Thursday, May 21, 2015 photo, Mohammed Elias, 45, displays a photograph of his 14-year-old son, who has been missing in a human trafficking ring in Ukhiya, near Cox's Bazar, a southern coastal district about, 296 kilometers (183 miles) south of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Elias has paid ransom to a lady who collected the money from him faking herself as a beggar at Teknaf in Cox’s Bazar district that borders with Myanmar. The traffickers spun stories that were unimaginable to their listeners, many who hailed from tiny Bangladeshi villages where almost no one earns more than a few dollars a day. As a boat people crisis emerged in Southeast Asia in recent weeks, nearly all the focus has been on the Rohingya: the persecuted Muslim minority fleeing Myanmar. But of the more than 3,000 people who have come ashore this month in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, about half were from Bangladesh, according to the U.N. refugee agency, mainly poor laborers seeking better jobs and a brighter future. (AP Photo/A.M. Ahad)
In this Friday, May 29, 2015 photo, American actor Matt Dillon, right, shakes hands with Noor Alam, a 17-year old Rohingya survivor of human-trafficking at Thetkabyin village, north of Sittwe in the western state of Rakhine, Myanmar. Dillon puts a rare celebrity spotlight on the plight of Myanmar's long-persecuted Rohingya Muslims, visiting a hot, squalid camp for tens of thousands displaced by violence and a port that has served as one of the main launching pads for their exodus by sea. (AP Photo/Robin McDowell)
An armed Malaysian policeman checks a driver's documentations a day after the government announced the discovery of camps and graves, the first such sites found in Malaysia since a regional human-trafficking crisis erupted earlier this month, near Malaysia-Thailand borders in Wang Kelian on May 25, 2015. A total of 139 grave sites and 28 human-trafficking camps have been found in a remote northern Malaysian border region, the country's top police official told reporters. AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN (Photo credit should read MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images)
A journalist takes photo of 24 alleged human traffickers' pictures displayed on a board, released by Italian police during a press conference in Palermo on April 20, 2015. AFP PHOTO / MARCELLO PATERNOSTRO (Photo credit should read MARCELLO PATERNOSTRO/AFP/Getty Images)
In this Monday, May 11, 2015, photo 16-year-old Sadik Hussein, left, and 17-year-old Noor Alam, hours after returning to their homes in Thetkabyin Village, north of Sittwe, western Rakhine state, Myanmar. They say they escaped from a human trafficking boat, where they sat for days with their knees bent into their chest, pressed up against other sweaty bodies in the cabin's rancid heat. They say members of the crew paced back and forth with iron rods and belts, hitting anyone who dared speak or even vomit from the nauseating stench and rolling waves. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)
In this In this Tuesday, May 12, 2015, photo 17-year old Rorbiza rests at camp home of Dapaing, North of Sittwe, western Rakhine state, Myanmar, after escaping from a human trafficking boat. Brokers promise pretty young girls the prospect of arranged marriages in Malaysia, though activists say in recent years many have instead been sold into prostitution.(AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)
Thai policemen listen to Thai Police chief Gen. Somyot Poompanmoung during a meeting about Anti Human Trafficking at the police headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand , Friday, May 8, 2015. Thailand's national police chief said a powerful mayor was arrested Friday and that more than 50 police officers were under investigation in the country's widening human-trafficking scandal. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)
School girls holding placards react to camera as they walk as part of an awareness campaign against human trafficking in Kolkata, India, Sunday, Feb. 15, 2015. The event was organized by the Diocese of Kolkata as part of their Bicentenary celebrations. (AP Photo/Bikas Das)
Community members holds a candlelit vigil in support of the “safe harbor” legislation for child victims of human trafficking, Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014, in Atlanta. State Sen. Renee Unterman, of Buford, wants child victims of human trafficking to be immune from prosecution in Georgia, building on the state’s 2011 crackdown on prostitution and other sexual crimes. Unterman pre-filed the legislation on Thursday before joining about 50 supporters for a candlelight vigil for victims of sex trafficking at an Atlanta church. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
California state Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), left, and Assemblyman Isadore Hall, D-Compton, join prosecutors, lawmakers and police to plot a plan to eradicate human sex trafficking in California and across the nation during the Domestic Human Trafficking symposium in Los Angeles, Friday, April, 25, 2014. According to a 2005 International Labour Organisation paper, human trafficking — or sexual servitude and forced labor — brings in about $32 billion annually, making it the second most profitable criminal enterprise after illegal arms trafficking. The majority of that money, or nearly $28 billion, comes from forced commercial sexual exploitation. The vast majority of those trafficked are women and children, from all milieus of society. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Alexandro Cross, 5, carries a sign during a rally against human trafficking, Friday, Feb. 14, 2014, in Miami. This event was part of the One Billion Rising for Justice, a worldwide event by supporters demanding the arrest of those who participate in domestic violence and human trafficking. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
A speaker addresses EU and police experts during a conference on trafficking in humans, in Warsaw, Poland, Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013. (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz
A Georgia State Patrol trooper stands next to a portrait of Archibald Bulloch, Georgia's first President and Commander-in-Chief in 1776, as a poster board stands on display during a press conference announcing a new campaign on human trafficking by state lawmakers and law enforcement officials, Monday, March 18, 2013, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Parents of missing children open doors of a mini-van, covered by photos and informations about abducted and missing children, while they leave an art gallery that holds a painting exhibition of an artist who supports anti-human trafficking campaigns in Beijing, China, Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013. Child buyers in China are not subject to criminal prosecution if they do not obstruct rescue efforts or mistreat the children, and legal experts are pushing for a law revision to make it a crime to buy abducted children, Xinhua reported. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)
Joy Ngozi Ezeilo, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, gestures as she talks about her report on her fact-finding mission in the Philippines Friday Nov. 9, 2012 at the financial district of Makati city, east of Manila. Ezeilo said one of the "issues of concern" is the lack of accurate data and somewhat low-level of awareness knowledge and skills amongst government authorities to identify cases of trafficking in persons. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)
British actress Emma Thompson tells the story of a young woman forced into prostitution during the opening ceremony of Journey, an installation recounting the tale of Elena, a young woman who fell victim to human trafficking, in The Hague, Netherlands, Thursday, Oct. 14, 2010. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)
Los Angeles Police Department Capt. Ann Young, at podium, asks the public to help identify other victims of of alleged child pimp, Leroy Bragg, seen in photo, left, during a news conference on Monday, Oct. 4, 2010, in Los Angeles. The 34-year-old Bragg had befriended girls and young women in the Los Angeles area then forced them to work for him. He has been charged with recruiting a 13-year-old girl into prostitution. He has pleaded not guilty to human trafficking, crimes involving a minor and an unrelated burglary. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
In this photo taken on Jan. 21, 2009, Myanmar refugees participate in a demonstration outside the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Malaysian authorities have arrested five immigration officers suspected of taking part in the trafficking of illegal immigrants from Myanmar, police said Tuesday, July 21, 2009. (AP Photo/Lai Seng Sin)
Mita Mandal, right, narrates her story as Swapna Gayen, left, a sex worker and active worker of their union Durbar Women Co-ordination Committee during a press conference of announcement of Media Award on human trafficking and HIV/AIDS in Calcutta, India, Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2006. The Human Development Resource Network (HDRN), a New Delhi based advocacy and leadership development organization announced four awards for outstanding published reports in print media and four for the Television media covering trafficking and HIV in India, carrying a cash prize of Rupees 25,000 (USD$543) and a certificate each. Mandal was bought by a human trafficker but saved by a women organization and now sings in events supporting social causes. (AP Photo/Bikas Das)
Sex workers and sympathizers demonstrate on April 9, 2015 against the closure of window brothels by the municipality in the red light district in Amsterdam. With Project 1012, the Amsterdam wants to close window prostitution to prevent crime, human trafficking and degradation. AFP PHOTO / ANP / ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEN - netherlands out - (Photo credit should read ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEN/AFP/Getty Images)
An ethnic Rohingya boy leans on a traffic lane separator used as a partition at a temporary shelter in Langsa, Aceh province, Indonesia, Sunday, May 17, 2015. Boats filled with more than 2,000 Bangladeshi and Rohingya migrants have landed in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, and thousands more migrants are believed to be adrift at sea after a crackdown on human traffickers prompted captains and smugglers to abandon their human cargo. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara)
Thai policemen listen to Thai Police chief Gen. Somyot Poompanmoung during a meeting about Anti Human Trafficking at the police headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand , Friday, May 8, 2015. Thailand's national police chief said a powerful mayor was arrested Friday and that more than 50 police officers were under investigation in the country's widening human-trafficking scandal. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)
In this May 5, 2015 photo, forensic police officer collects items left at an abandoned migrant camp on Khao Kaew Mountain near the Thai-Malaysian border in Padang Besar, Songkhla province, southern Thailand. Thailand is eager to show its newfound toughness on human trafficking, taking reporters on patrols and tours of former camps, cooperating with neighboring countries and the U.S., and arresting dozens of officials - including a high-ranking officer in the military that now controls the country. A discovery of 36 bodies at abandoned traffickers’ camps near Thailand’s southern border with Malaysia has intensified international pressure on Thailand to crack down on smugglers. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)
Thai police officials measure a shallow grave in Padang Besar, Songkhla province, southern Thailand, Saturday, May 2, 2015. Police officials in Thailand trekked into the mountains to dig up shallow graves Saturday, after the grim discovery of an abandoned jungle camp renewed calls for a crackdown on the human trafficking networks operating in the Southeast Asian country. (AP Photo/Sumeth Panpetch)
Volunteer officers dismantle an abandoned migrant camp on Khao Kaew mountain near the Thai-Malaysian border in Padang Besar, Songkhla province, southern Thailand, Tuesday, May 5, 2015. Police have found a recently abandoned camp on a forested hillside in southern Thailand believed to have held human trafficking victims, days after the grim discovery of 26 bodies at a separate location exposed a thriving human smuggling network. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)
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