Who comes to mind when you think of the “face” of hunger? A child begging for food, like a modern-day Oliver Twist? Maybe you imagine a shut-in senior citizen struggling to make her pension cover the cost of food. Many people think first of how hunger impacts children and seniors – and they’re not wrong. Households with children are more likely to be food insecure than those without children, and many elderly do struggle with hunger.
But with more than 41 million food-insecure Americans, hunger is all around us. Food banks work to close the hunger gap by distributing millions of pounds of food to local food pantries, soup kitchens and other charitable organizations. However, despite our best efforts, there are some groups that are harder to reach and are especially affected by hunger – like teenagers.
I should know. I was one of the forgotten hungry, a teenager struggling to find food in America.
The forgotten hungry
Teen hunger isn’t always obvious, which is why we don’t normally think of adolescents struggling with hunger. For example, food-insecure teens are often obese, which may mask the problem. Because they don’t know when they’ll have another full meal, teenagers may binge on unhealthy but affordable snacks, like cookies or chips, to satiate their hunger.
Research conducted by Feeding America and the Urban Institute shines a light on the unique challenges faced by food-insecure teenagers. More than 6.7 million youth, ages 10 to 19, receive assistance each year as part of the Feeding America network. That’s nearly 17 percent of people served by 200 food banks nationwide.
Teenagers are at a critical stage of development. Food insecurity negatively impacts physical and emotional growth, leading to decreased energy levels and mood swings. Persistent hunger also has a negative effect on teens’ academic performance, which can have lifelong consequences for teens pursuing either post-secondary education or career options.
This was my experience as a hungry teen. I grew up in foster homes, on the street and in homeless shelters. I frequented soup kitchens to survive. I would be extra nice to people I met so they might invite me to dinner. I ate anything I could get my hands on, which was usually junk food, and gained weight from the excess sugar and carbs. I struggled to focus in school, and wasn’t sure how I would survive.
How we can help hungry teens
Nonprofits that serve food-insecure teens often report challenges in reaching them through existing child hunger programs. Teens are keenly alert to how others perceive them, and are more aware of the stigma associated with free lunches in school cafeterias. They may try to save food for hungry younger siblings, resort to petty theft or gang membership to access food – or even barter sex work for a meal. These risky behaviors have long-term consequences, hindering teens’ ability to fulfill their personal, educational and professional potential.
So what can we do to reach hungry and vulnerable teenagers?
First, we should extend public school lunch programs to serve all students – not just those who qualify based on income. Boston, Chicago and New York recently introduced legislation that offers universal meals to all public school students, and Washington, D.C. is considering it. By leveling the playing field in the cafeteria, we’re helping reduce the stigma of “free” lunch.
Additionally, food banks and other anti-hunger organizations should raise awareness about the pressing issue of teen hunger and its serious consequences. We should partner with teen-focused nonprofits to identify opportunities to collaborate and effectively reach these teens. For example, the Community FoodBank of New Jersey partners with organizations like the Boys & Girls Clubs and Bonnie Brae, a residential school and therapeutic community for teenage boys in crisis. Students come to the FoodBank to volunteer, learn to cook healthy meals and meet with our employees who were formerly hungry, at-risk teens themselves.
And for Americans lucky enough to have food in the fridge, I’d encourage you to contribute what you can to alleviate hunger in your community. Donate canned goods to a local pantry, volunteer your time at a food bank or make a monetary donation to an anti-hunger organization. Together, we can make sure that all Americans, no matter their background, age or walk of life, have a seat at the table.