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

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 and sex trafficking issues around the world
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)
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)
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)
Ivanka Trump speaks during a meeting on action to end modern slavery and human trafficking on the sidelines of the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. Headquarters in Manhattan, New York, U.S., September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
ATHENS, ATTIKI, GREECE - 2017/10/14: Greek human right activists take part in the 2017 Walk for Freedom event raising awareness about Human Trafficking. (Photo by George Panagakis/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
ATHENS, ATTIKI, GREECE - 2017/10/14: Greek human right activists take part in the 2017 Walk for Freedom event raising awareness about Human Trafficking. (Photo by George Panagakis/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Human trafficking suspect Patchuban Angchotipan, a former official in the provincial government of the southern province of Satun, arrives at the criminal court in Bangkok, Thailand, November 10, 2015. Eighty-eight human trafficking suspects arrested as part of a crackdown on Thailand's lucrative smuggling and trafficking syndicates were brought before a Bangkok court on Tuesday to start examination of evidence and witnesses ahead of a trial. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Lieutenant-General Manas Kongpan, a suspected human trafficker, is escorted by officers as he arrives for a hearing at the criminal court in Bangkok, Thailand, March 15, 2016. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom
Timothy Patrick Deegan, who has been charged with human trafficking after being accused of keeping three women as sex slaves in Gainesville, Florida, is seen in an undated photo released by the Alachua County Sheriff's Office in Gainesville, Florida. Deegan, 53, a Florida certified public accountant, remained behind bars on June 12, 2014, on a $300,000 bond following his arrest on June 6, 2014. REUTERS/Alachua County Sheriff's Office/Handout via Reuters (UNITED STATES - Tags: CRIME LAW HEADSHOT) ATTENTION EDITORS ? THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson talks about sex traffickers in Iowa and Nebraska during a human trafficking seminar, where opponents of the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline expressed concerns that "man camps" created during construction of the pipeline might bring the sex trade to their area in O'Neill, Nebraska, U.S. April 12, 2017. Picture taken April 12, 2017. REUTERS/Lane Hickenbottom
Backpage.com CEO Carl Ferrer, center, and controlling shareholders James Larkin, left, and Michael Lacey, right, listen to Sacramento Superior Court Judge Lawrence Brown during a hearing on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017, in Sacramento Superior Court. (Hector Amezcua/Sacramento Bee/TNS via Getty Images)
Japanese national Susumu Fukui (2nd R) is escorted by Cambodian police to the Phnom Penh municipal court in Phnom Penh on February 7, 2017. Fukui, a Japanese restaurant owner accused of overseeing a smuggling ring that forced women into sex work in Japan, was charged with trafficking in Cambodia on February 7, along with his wife and an employee. / AFP / TANG CHHIN Sothy (Photo credit should read TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP/Getty Images)
TANGERANG, INDONESIA - AUGUST 16: Suspects of human trafficking arrive at Soekarno-Hatta Airport on August 16, 2016 in Tangerang, Indonesia. 9 Suspects while smuggling 16 people from the sea port promontory hall, North Sumatra province to Malaysia got raided and arrested by police. An estimated 6 million Indonesian laborers (70% of whom are female) work abroad. Many Indonesian workers who have migrated to the Middle East and Asia have been subjected to exploitation. According to the 2013 US Trafficking In Persons Report, Indonesia is a major source country for women, children, and men who are subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor.' PHOTOGRAPH BY Jefta Images / Barcroft Images London-T:+44 207 033 1031 E:hello@barcroftmedia.com New York-T:+1 212 796 2458 E:hello@barcroftusa.com New Delhi-T:+91 11 4053 2429 E:hello@barcroftindia.com www.barcroftmedia.comA (Photo credit should read Jefta Images / Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
TANGERANG, INDONESIA - AUGUST 16: Suspects of human trafficking arrive at Soekarno-Hatta Airport on August 16, 2016 in Tangerang, Indonesia. 9 Suspects while smuggling 16 people from the sea port promontory hall, North Sumatra province to Malaysia got raided and arrested by police. An estimated 6 million Indonesian laborers (70% of whom are female) work abroad. Many Indonesian workers who have migrated to the Middle East and Asia have been subjected to exploitation. According to the 2013 US Trafficking In Persons Report, Indonesia is a major source country for women, children, and men who are subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor.' PHOTOGRAPH BY Jefta Images / Barcroft Images London-T:+44 207 033 1031 E:hello@barcroftmedia.com New York-T:+1 212 796 2458 E:hello@barcroftusa.com New Delhi-T:+91 11 4053 2429 E:hello@barcroftindia.com www.barcroftmedia.comA (Photo credit should read Jefta Images / Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
MEWAT, INDIA - MARCH 13: Ghausia Khan a bride trafficking survivor, is a member of the district legal aid authority, Mewat is showing the images of enlisted Paros on March 13, 2014 in Mewat, India. Khan a worker with Empower People, an NGO which deals with trafficking cases and helps women in distress to find lawyers and provides them with legal information and at times, monetary assistance. Trafficked brides are locally known as Paro or Molki (means one who has a price). These are pejorative labels in Haryana, Punjab and western Uttar Pradesh where the skewed sex ratio and entrenched feudalism has resulted in a flourishing trade in women trafficked from the poverty-ridden villages of Assam, West Bengal, Jharkhand and Odisha. The women, who are usually promised marriage, find themselves in places like Mewat where the go-betweens sell them sometimes repeatedly to men who cannot find local women. Cut off from their native states, they are often confined and forced to work as bonded labour or pushed into forced marriages or prostitution. (Photo by Subrata Biswas/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
MEWAT, INDIA - MARCH 13: Ghausia Khan a bride trafficking survivor, is a member of the district legal aid authority, Mewat is showing the images of enlisted Paros on March 13, 2014 in Mewat, India. Khan a worker with Empower People, an NGO which deals with trafficking cases and helps women in distress to find lawyers and provides them with legal information and at times, monetary assistance. Trafficked brides are locally known as Paro or Molki (means one who has a price). These are pejorative labels in Haryana, Punjab and western Uttar Pradesh where the skewed sex ratio and entrenched feudalism has resulted in a flourishing trade in women trafficked from the poverty-ridden villages of Assam, West Bengal, Jharkhand and Odisha. The women, who are usually promised marriage, find themselves in places like Mewat where the go-betweens sell them sometimes repeatedly to men who cannot find local women. Cut off from their native states, they are often confined and forced to work as bonded labour or pushed into forced marriages or prostitution. (Photo by Subrata Biswas/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
A court order is seen hanging with red wax on the main door of the closed Oragon/Sideway club which was used by sex traffickers as a brothel in the area of Zouk Mkayel, north of Beirut on April, 14, 2016. Lebanese security forces busted a sex trafficking ring involving 75 Syrian women trafficked to Lebanon from their country and forced into prostitution. / AFP / JOSEPH EID (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
A general view shows the three-story Chez Maurice Hotel, which was used by sex traffickers as a brothel, in the Maameltein district of the coastal town of Jounieh, north of Beirut on April, 14, 2016. Lebanese security forces busted a sex trafficking ring involving 75 Syrian women trafficked to Lebanon from their country and forced into prostitution. / AFP / JOSEPH EID (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian sex trafficking victim is seen making coffee in the kitchen of her safehouse at an undisclosed location in Lebanon on April 13, 2016, after she fled a brothel in Lebanon where she was being held captive. Lebanese security forces busted a sex trafficking ring involving 75 Syrian women trafficked to Lebanon from their country and forced into prostitution. / AFP / STRINGER (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
Belle Plaine, Minnesota. Billboard showing the effects of sex slavery in the United States. (Photo by: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)
DENVER, CO - OCTOBER 13: FBI officials announced that 20 underage victims were recovered and 7 pimps arrested in Colorado and Wyoming as part of a national Operation Cross CountryIX. At the Denver FBI headquarters on Tuesday, October 13, 2015 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler (second from left) cranes around to see the video display of sex traffickers and their recent sentences. Left to right: Dawn Weber Second Judicial District Chief Deputy District Attorney in charge of Cold Case Unit & Human Trafficking Unit Brauchler , and 18th Judicial District Deputy District Attorney Cara Morlan. (Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon/The Denver Post via Getty Images )
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