Across America, more than 13 million children are food insecure, including 17,080 here in Eastern Iowa. This means many of our most vulnerable citizens do not have regular access to the healthy, nutritious food that they need to learn and thrive.
The effect of hunger on children is well-documented. There is significant literature on this topic; however, a majority of it focuses on younger children. Less is known about teens who face hunger.
A new study released this month, “Bringing Teens to the Table: A Focus on Food Insecurity in America,” exposes the plight of teenagers facing hunger. The study was conducted by Feeding America, a national network of 200 food banks — of which the HACAP Food Reservoir is a member — and the Urban Institute. It reveals the challenges faced and coping strategies employed by some teens struggling with hunger.
Among the key findings is the fact that teen food insecurity is widespread. Teenagers often have to help their families figure out how everyone in the household has enough to eat. A teen who participated in one focus group put it this way: “When you don’t have enough money, you’re going to go with the more processed food or junk food. That affects your health, if you don’t have enough money to get the healthy stuff (that) you need, you’re going to go to the other side, to the junk food.”
The study also addresses how teens who face hunger are forced to take on adult responsibilities. Many are tasked with determining how to make food last longer for the whole family and often sacrifice their own meals in order to feed younger siblings. Another teen states: “They’re higher in the order (of who should get to eat), so the older kids make sure they give to the younger kids first.”
Finally, the study found that teens feel a deep sense of stigma around hunger. They hide the fact that they don’t have enough to eat. Many said they avoided food assistance delivered in public places. When her family received food aid, a teen told us: “I got made fun of. It was terrible.”
These findings are heartbreaking. No teen should have to experience such shame or hardship. Each year, the HACAP Food Reservoir serves more than 3,000 children who face hunger. The HACAP Food Reservoir distributes food to more than 100 nonprofit pantries, feeding programs and organizations who serve families and children. The Food Reservoir also operates year-round mobile food pantries across our seven-county service area and collaborates with area schools interested in setting up school pantries. In addition, the HACAP Food Reservoir Operation BackPack Program provides weekly food bags to preteens and children in 75 schools. We recognize that there is more work to do.
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If we want teens to grow into healthy, productive adults, we must expand efforts to reach them. You can help by donating resources (funds and non-perishable food) or volunteering your time and talents with the HACAP Food Reservoir. Together, we can create a hunger-free America for the next generation.
To read the full report, visit feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/our-research/teen-hunger-research
• Linda Gorkow is director of the HACAP Food Reservoir. More information: www.hacap.org