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

Before you go, we thought you'd like these...
Before you go close icon

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."

RELATED: See images of human trafficking issues around the world
5 PHOTOS
Human trafficking issues around the world
See Gallery
Human trafficking issues around the world
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)
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)
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)
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE
Read Full Story

Sign up for Breaking News by AOL to get the latest breaking news alerts and updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.

From Our Partners

Man Built This Contraption In His Backyard - And Even He Was Surprised How Well It Worked Man Built This Contraption In His Backyard - And Even He Was Surprised How Well It Worked
This Elephant Was Separated From Her Mother As A Baby - But She's About To Get A Huge This Elephant Was Separated From Her Mother As A Baby - But She's About To Get A Huge
19 of the Creepiest, Most Inexplicable Things People Ever Experienced 19 of the Creepiest, Most Inexplicable Things People Ever Experienced