April 11, 2018

When Teenagers Go Hungry, They Face Impossible Choices

By Susan Popkin

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Teenagers are hungry – all the time. That’s universally true, even in the most secure, economically well-off families.

But for teens living in or on the edge of poverty, hunger is not a casual experience. In fact, it can lead to extreme or even dangerous behavior—from saving school lunches for the weekend or going hungry so younger siblings can eat to stealing or trading sex for money to buy food. The riskiest behaviors are by no means typical of all teens, even in the most distressed communities, but they illustrate the lengths to which some of the most desperate and food-insecure teens are willing to go to survive.

The best estimates are that across the country some 6.8 million people ages 10 to 17 are food insecure, meaning they don’t have reliable access to enough affordable, nutritious food. Roughly 2.9 million are very food insecure; they often experience disruptions to their eating habits, including periods without having any food at all.  

Such food insecurity takes a tremendous toll on teenagers. Poor nutrition—and the stress of hunger and poverty—can jeopardize their physical and mental health and development and their academic success.

To get a better understanding of what this actually means for teens, the Urban Institute and Feeding America, a nationwide network of some 200 food banks supporting 60,000 food pantries and other food programs, conducted 20 focus groups in 10 diverse communities with young people ages 13-18. We described these in a report called "Impossible Choices."

“If a kid sees his own family struggling, they help out,” one boy we spoke to in eastern Illinois told us. “They have to be the man or woman of the house.”  While that may sound enterprising and self-reliant, all too often the actual choices teens face are severely limited and can result in self-destructive behavior.

This is what we learned in our focus group discussions:

  • Teen food insecurity is widespread. Even in focus groups where participants were not food insecure, teens were aware of classmates and neighbors who regularly did not have enough to eat.

  • Teens fear stigma around hunger and actively hide it. Consequently, many teens refuse to accept food or assistance in public settings or from people outside a trusted circle of friends and family.

  • Food-insecure teens strategize about how to ease their hunger and make food last longer for the whole family. Some go over to friends’ or relatives’ houses to eat. Some save their school lunch for the weekend.

  • Parents try to protect teens from hunger and from bearing responsibility for providing for themselves or others. However, teens in food-insecure families routinely take on this role, going hungry so younger siblings can eat or finding ways to bring in food and money.

  • Teens overwhelmingly prefer to earn money through a formal job, but their job prospects are limited, particularly in high-poverty communities. And often, teens can’t make enough money to make a dent in family food insecurity.

  • When faced with acute food insecurity, teens in all but two of the communities said that youth engage in criminal behavior, ranging from shoplifting food directly to selling drugs and stealing items to resell for cash. These behaviors were most common among young men in communities with the most limited job options.

  • Teens in all 10 communities and in 13 of the 20 focus groups talked about some youth selling sex for money to pay for food. These themes arose most strongly in high-poverty communities where teens also described sexually coercive environments. Sexual exploitation most commonly took the form of transactional dating relationships with older adults.

  • In a few communities, teens talked about going to jail or failing school (so they could attend summer classes and get school lunch) as viable strategies for ensuring regular meals.

The story that emerged from conversations with these teens is one of limited options that truly does leave them with impossible choices. 


What we learned led us to make recommendations for immediate changes in policy and practice in schools, social service providers, public housing developments, and among others working with food-insecure young people.

Teen-focused strategies to alleviate hunger and direct teens away from risky behavior include increasing nutrition assistance benefits, strengthening teen nutrition programs, creating more and better youth job opportunities, and empowering teens to create community-based solutions.

For example, we put the spotlight on one hopeful program that we helped develop and pilot in Portland, Oregon, where teens participate in a food literacy program and also work together in a monthly “Harvest Share” free food distribution program in their mixed-income development. The Urban Institute is currently replicating this program in Chicago with teens living in public housing there.

We also urge that educators and police should be trained to recognize the trauma experienced by girls who are sexually exploited and provide counseling or referrals rather than treating them like offenders.

In the long term, the only way to end teen food insecurity is to address its root cause—family poverty—by improving access to jobs, providing better access to opportunity-rich neighborhoods, and strengthening the safety net when parents cannot earn enough to cover basic needs.

PHOTOs BY:  Matt Johnson/Urban Institute

Susan Popkin is an Institute Fellow of the HOST initiative in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute. Her most recent book is No Simple Solutions: Transforming Public Housing in Chicago. Molly M. Scott, Martha Galvez, and Elaine Waxman of the Urban Institute were co-authors with her of the “Impossible Choices” report.