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Impossible Choices

“People have to do other things. They do what they have to do to survive because not everyone can go out and get a job.”

teenage boy, Illinois

Social science has long explored the risky and dangerous behaviors teenagers engage in. But research is starting to show that a small number of teens are motivated to do so by desperation and struggles with hunger.

We are learning that a small subset of teenagers make risky decisions in big and small communities alike because family poverty has increased, working-class wages have stalled, and cash assistance from government programs has wilted.

Research shows that the food budget is one of the first things pared down when times get tough for a family. Under such conditions, these households can become food insecure—that is, they struggle to acquire enough affordable, nutritious food to healthily feed the whole family.

“People have to do other things. They do what they have to do to survive because not everyone can go out and get a job.”

teenage boy, Illinois

Using Current Population Survey data, food insecurity expert Craig Gundersen recently estimated that 6.8 million young people ages 10 to 17 struggle to have enough to eat, including 2.9 million who have very low food security.

The ramifications of food insecurity are innumerable. 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.

As a result, policymakers in recent years have focused primarily on the high level of food insecurity experienced by the youngest children in school. These efforts are helping, but they don’t sufficiently account for the needs of some food-insecure teenagers.

Policies and programs often overlook the unseen consequences that food insecurity and related stress may have on teens outside of school.

So over the course of three years, researchers from the Urban Institute and Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger relief organization, sought to get a more complete picture of how food insecurity affects teenagers. They spread out across the country, conducting focus groups with 193 teenagers in 10 different communities.

What emerged was a portrait of impossible choices imposed upon teenagers who are forced to transition into adulthood much too quickly.

To truly understand how some teens could find themselves going beyond the familiar coping strategies of skipping meals and eating cheap food to rationally choosing to shoplift, steal, sell drugs, date for money, or join a gang, one must first grasp the conditions that put these dangerous options up for consideration.

“[You start] out trying to find a job and when that doesn’t work out, you find a quick hustle.”

teenage boy, North Carolina

Structurally Disadvantaged

In low-income communities, jobs are typically scarce. The positions available most often pay low wages, offer inadequate hours, or otherwise require skills, education, and experience that low-income parents have not garnered.

Consequently, the wages these parents earn and benefits they might receive, such as federal cash and food assistance, are typically not enough to pay the rent, utility bills, transportation costs, and grocery expenses.

Food-insecure families often try to tighten their belts by buying cheaper, low-quality food products and reducing meal portions or even skipping meals.

But in many cases, these coping strategies are not enough to stave off food insecurity, and the family starts running out of food by the middle of the month.

Under such circumstances, teenagers, especially those with younger siblings, feel a responsibility to help the family keep more food on the table.

“I will go without a meal if that’s the case,” said a teenage girl interviewed in Chicago. “As long as my two [younger] siblings [are] good, that’s all that really matters to me.”

A food pantry at the Table Church in Washington, DC, tries to help families source food, skills, and job opportunities.

Often overlooked is that teens in families that struggle with hunger are food consumers and decisionmakers too. In interviews across all sites, teens talked about the scarcity of quality grocery stores in their neighborhoods, the resulting higher prices, and the general lower quality of food options nearby.

“Some people go to Aldi or Walmart, but it really depends on how much money you have,” said a teenage girl from Illinois. “Where you get food from depends on income.”

They also talked about the extra costs and efforts families must expend to use public transportation to reach far-away grocery stores with healthier options and cheaper prices. And getting home is not always as easy as getting to the store.

“If you buy too [much] stuff, you can’t ride the bus,” said a teenage boy from Washington, DC. Instead, they have to pay taxis or strangers outside the stores for rides home.

“[You start] out trying to find a job and when that doesn’t work out, you find a quick hustle.”

teenage boy, North Carolina

Without affordable, higher-quality options close by, teens often settle for food at easily accessible local fast-food restaurants, drug stores, gas stations, and corner markets.

“When you’re broke, you get the dollar menu,” said a teenage boy from San Diego.

Further, researchers found that teens are often unaware of resources within their community, such as food pantries, where they can get free food. In other cases, teens said they were aware of these resources but were under the impression that they are not qualified to receive food there. Indeed, in some cases, teens below age 18 may not be eligible to get food at a pantry.

Perhaps the most formidable difficulty is that many teens experiencing food insecurity often hide their hunger for fear of ridicule.

“Teens feel more bad about [hunger] because they have more insecurities about themselves,” said a teenage boy in San Diego. “Poor kids are the outcasts. People [are] nasty to you.”

As a result, some teens turn down help from perceptive teachers, neighbors, and other well-intentioned community members.

Instead, they rely on a trusted circle of people to get by. They go to their closest family members’ and friends’ houses for meals. They quietly ask them for money at lunchtime. All the while they look to avoid detection and humiliation.

So with parents already working hard to feed the family, little food in their pantry, and a desire to hide their needs, some food-insecure teens look for ways to help their families make ends meet.

“You start to get worried . . . like your family is in danger.”

teenage boy, Portland

Expedited Adulthood

When faced with severe food insecurity, teens can begin to feel the weight of adult responsibilities.

Some reach this point when their struggling parents pressure them to take on a share of the family’s breadwinning duties, but most realize they want to help when they see for themselves the realities of their families’ material hardships.

“You start to get worried… like your family is in danger,” said a teenage boy in Portland. “They won’t have enough food. [You] start to want to get jobs to provide for basic needs.”

“You start to get worried . . . like your family is in danger.”

teenage boy, Portland

But like their parents, teenagers have limited jobs available to them within their communities. Even when they find one, the job is typically a minimum-wage retail position at a fast-food restaurant, drug store, gas station, grocery store, or clothing shop.

Consequently, teens with little work experience end up competing against adults for the limited number of low-skill positions.

“It can be difficult,” said a teenage boy in Los Angeles. “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.”

School can also be a challenge.

Employers increasingly want workers to have flexible schedules so that they can easily fill shifts. Unfortunately when jobs offering school-friendly schedules aren’t hiring, some teenagers from desperate families drop out to pick up the needed income. Sometimes they return to school, but often they don’t.

As an alternative, some teens work “under the table” in restaurants, corner stores, or flea markets. Others find work at subsidized youth-employment programs run by local government agencies or nonprofits.

And others seek entrepreneurial opportunities within their own communities, such as mowing lawns, babysitting, raking leaves, or walking dogs.

“[You start] out trying to find a job and when that doesn’t work out, you find a quick hustle,” said a teenage boy in North Carolina.

When some teenagers are able to earn money, they first address their own needs, buying food, clothes, or school supplies to free up cash for their family’s other expenses. If they have some money left, many pitch in to pay the bills. Others give all their money directly to their parents so the adults can cover everything.

Teens also give money to siblings and friends that might also be struggling with food insecurity or other material needs.

But too often, a teen looking to add to his or her family’s collective income can’t earn enough. It’s in these moments of need when some teens make the choice to help their families stock the pantry by earning money outside of the legal economy.

“It’s really like selling yourself. You’ll do whatever you need to do to get money or eat.”

teenage girl, Portland

Dangerous Risks

Unmitigated hunger can lead to desperation. And desperate moments sometimes lead to compromising choices.

Teens at all the study sites told researchers that some of their peers open themselves up to a bevy of dangerous risks to meet their and their families’ basic needs.

“People have to do other things,” said a teenage boy in Illinois. “They do what they have to do to survive because not everyone can go out and get a job.”

For some, survival is a matter of simply walking into a store and pocketing something to eat with a sleight of hand or intentionally not scanning something at a self-checkout kiosk.

“I ain’t talking about robbing nobody,” said a teenage boy in Chicago.” I’m just talking like going [in] there and [getting] what you need. If you need to do that, that’s what you need to do.”

Although some teens talked about shoplifting as a fairly common strategy, with some starting as early as age 7, even more serious illegal activity can quickly escalate.

For some food-insecure teenage boys, stealing and selling drugs can become a strategy for earning money to pay for food and other vital needs.

Indeed, teenage boys said, stealing items such as smart phones, shoes, jewelry, bikes, and car stereos or other vehicle parts provides a quick way to get some cash.

Drug dealing is another option that some teens discussed. Beyond the personal and legal risks drug dealing poses to teenagers, the harmful side effects also extend to younger members of the community.

“It’s really like selling yourself. You’ll do whatever you need to do to get money or eat.”

teenage girl, Portland

“Drugs, alcohol, everything,” said a teenage girl in rural Oregon. “[The] bad things people used to just do in high school has spread to the junior high and down to the elementary school.”

Teenage girls are more vulnerable to a different type of insidious risk: sexual exploitation.

Teens at all 10 of the study locations and in 13 out of 20 focus groups talked about girls having sex for money.

Often this takes the form of “transactional dating,” meaning a teen regularly sees and has sex with someone, often a significantly older man, in exchange for meals, material goods, or cash. It’s harder to recognize, but teens interviewed for the study said it’s pervasive.

“It’s really like selling yourself,” said a teenage girl in Portland. “ You’ll do whatever you need to do to get money or eat.”

Teens said girls might opt for this strategy over other hustles because they think it’s pretty normal in their community, it’s less policed, and overall it carries less risk.

A less common but no less harmful strategy cited by teens in two locations is when kids intentionally fail in school or get arrested on purpose to ensure continued access to food.

“It might not be the best food, might not be the best place to be, but it’s a roof over your head,” said a teenage girl in Portland. “And every single day they eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”

All of these strategies—shoplifting, stealing, drug dealing, trading sex, or self-sabotage—threaten teens’ futures. They risk failure to finish school, bodily harm, arrest, incarceration, and long-standing criminal records that could inhibit their future employment.

With a clearer understanding of the connection between food insecurity and the risky strategies adopted by some teens facing dire realities, greater priority must be given to addressing this issue. The question is: what are the best ways to go about solving such a complex problem?

“They understand what the risky behaviors have been around food insecurity. They want to address it with their peers themselves.”

Assefash Melles

Hope in New Columbia

Urban Institute researchers sat in a room full of teenagers in the North Portland public housing community known as New Columbia. It was springtime in 2014 and the researchers were in town to lead focus groups that would inform their teen food insecurity study. But these kids provided more than just details about coping strategies; they offered an entirely new direction for addressing the issue.

Before New Columbia, there was Columbia Villa, a 460-unit community originally built to house defense workers during World War II that was later transitioned into low-income housing.

But time deteriorated the units, and the eighties brought drugs, gangs, and violence to Columbia Villa, where poverty could be found in every direction and good jobs were hard to find.

Seeing the need for a fresh start, Home Forward, the housing authority of Portland and Multnomah County, applied for and won $35 million in HOPE VI grants to rebuild this community.

Thus in 2005, from the same 82-acre footprint sprang 850 new, colorfully-painted, mixed-income housing units; vibrant parks and sports fields; a modern community center; and a new school.

“They understand what the risky behaviors have been around food insecurity. They want to address it with their peers themselves.”

Assefash Melles

Still, for many New Columbia residents, the aforementioned structural disadvantages that led to food insecurity survived the transformation.

So when teens in the New Columbia focus groups said they wanted to work on a way to address food insecurity in their community, Urban jumped at the chance to partner with Feeding America to help them figure out how to do it.

The theory is that teenagers are better positioned than anyone to recognize incognito food insecurity, that they are uniquely capable of designing a program that would appeal to young people and get them to participate, and that they can break through other barriers to help get food to teens facing hunger, before they make impossible choices.

With this concept in hand and funding from the ConAgra Foods Foundation, the Urban Institute and Feeding America piloted this innovative approach to fighting teen food insecurity.

Two teens prepare lettuce for a food preparation demonstration at New Columbia’s June Harvest Share, an event where free, fresh food is distributed to residents.

“They understand what the risky behaviors have been around food insecurity,” said Assefash Melles, who was hired to help guide New Columbia’s youth. “They want to address it with their peers themselves.” Melles works to create a safe space where New Columbia’s children can share and address the issues they encounter in their lives. Many of them are from refugee families that fled different countries in search of safe ground. Some have already seen a lot in life.

To address these needs, as well as food insecurity, cultural barriers, and other difficulties related to growing up in New Columbia, Melles runs two group meetings a week and always has her door open for private visits. She also seeks out and connects kids and their family members to any wraparound services they might need, such as counseling to address the effects of trauma.

In addition to Melles, Food Works and the Oregon Food Bank, a member of the Feeding America network, helped create the pilot at New Columbia. Both organizations participated in sessions during the summer of 2015 to help these teenagers develop their own program to address teen food insecurity.

The teens who participated in the meetings were dubbed the Youth Community Advisory Board, or YCAB, a name they held onto to continue related work going forward.

“The youth felt really empowered by [the summer sessions] and they just wanted to replicate that,” said Kate Benedict, a program manager at the Oregon Food Bank. “They said, ‘we just need a space in our community where everyone can feel what we felt all summer.’ Where they feel like their voices are heard and there is a safe space to engage with each other.”

Coming out of the meetings, YCAB helped develop a three-step plan to address food insecurity for New Columbia’s teens. The first component aimed to address immediate food insecurity; the second to remove the stigma that often debilitates teens and their families from accepting help; and the third to embark on a 15-week youth-empowerment program that teaches younger teens to step into leadership roles to better the community.

“There’s a ton of issues that are creating food insecurity,” said Mikael Brust, the supervisor of Food Works’s youth employment leadership program. “I think to really have a space for these young people to really examine those issues and think about trying to address them in creative ways [is special].”

Members of New Columbia’s Youth Community Advisory Board, or YCAB, pose for a group photo in the safe space the community has dedicated to their efforts.

So far, the fruit of all this work is Harvest Share, a monthly event where the Oregon Food Bank drops off ample fresh organic food to be distributed to the residents of New Columbia. And all of it is designed, planned, managed, and handed out by YCAB members and their young protégés.

Harvest Share launched in January, and since then YCAB has reviewed and refined their plans and processes after each event to get better results at the next.

In June, all the food was handed out long before Harvest Share’s hours of operation expired, and the team began to think about asking the Oregon Food Bank for even more supplies. Still, YCAB aims to do a better job of reaching teens, not just their parents, so the members continue to tinker with new strategies.

New Columbia’s teens also aim to launch the second and third phases of their plan in the fall.

These are better days in New Columbia. Children have established a safe space to find and provide counsel to each other and to find themselves and their place in the community. Simultaneously, more food is reaching those who need it, and it’s the kids who are leading the way.

Solving Hunger

The experiment playing out at New Columbia shows significant promise and could become a model that communities around the country modify and use to address teen food insecurity in their own neighborhoods.

But beyond youth empowerment programs, other steps are needed to address the national scourge of teen food insecurity. Urban Institute researchers said policymakers and practitioners should consider several short- and long-term strategies to better end this problem.

"It might not be the best food, might not be the best place to be, but it’s a roof over your head. And every single day they eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”

teenage girl, Portland

Immediate ways they recommend for keeping teenagers well nourished and away from risky strategies include the following:

  • Increasing the amount of food provided by the federal food assistance program known as SNAP. A 2015 White House study shows that many SNAP beneficiaries run out of food before the end of the month. It would make a big difference if the amount provided actually met families’ needs.
  • Getting input from teens to make after-school and summer-meal programs more responsive to teens’ needs.
  • Tweaking charitable-feeding programs, such as food pantries, to become more accessible and welcoming to teenagers.
  • Expanding initiatives that provide full-time and part-time job opportunities to include all low-income youth. Providing opportunities for teens to earn wages that actually help their families make ends meet—while getting them work experience and steering them away from risky strategies—is essential.
  • Making trauma-informed care and counseling available for teens and their parents. Many parents have also had to adopt risky strategies. This type of care could significantly help all who have been hurt by those choices.

In the long run, researchers said the only way to entirely eliminate teen food insecurity is to uproot it at its source: family poverty. To accomplish such a huge task, policymakers, the business community, and practitioners have to empower low-income parents. A few strategies offered for achieving this end include the following:

  • Creating more and better job opportunities. An acute shortage of sustainably paying jobs exists in low-income communities, and that makes food security nearly impossible for these residents.
  • Improving access to existing jobs. Parents have a hard time getting work. They often have a lack of job experience; transportation issues; no access to childcare; or a criminal history. Working with employers to expand the pool of eligible job applicants to include such parents would make a big difference.
  • Reinvesting in cash assistance for struggling families. Funding for the cash assistance program known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families was significantly cut in recent years as states tightened eligibility requirements and repurposed funds. Reinvigorating this program to better help struggling families and loosening the eligibility criteria would relieve a lot of the pressure teens feel to make compromising choices.
  • Expanding housing assistance. Rent is usually the largest of a low-income family’s monthly expenses, yet only one in four eligible families receives a deep federal housing subsidy, and some teens living in subsidized housing still experience food insecurity. Providing significant assistance to more families, and helping families with vouchers move to better neighborhoods, would help more teens avoid having to make impossible choices.

Many of the ways that teenagers cope with food insecurity remain elusive, and related policymaking would certainly benefit from new qualitative and quantitative studies. Yet we also know what is driving teen food insecurity and, in many ways, we know exactly what needs to be done to attack the root of the problem. It just takes some bold steps.