A teenager’s everyday life should be concerned with first crushes, final exams, and new friends at school, not whether they’ll get to eat today. But for some, their most vital years of youth are a time of gnawing hunger.
New research by the Urban Institute reveals hidden starvation nationwide among adolescents. The interview-based study suggests that nutritional deprivation is intensifying and forcing barely mature youth into “expedited adulthood.” This is happening even when they live in otherwise stable families; the pattern suggests a new normal for teen hunger, which is apparently impacting not just socially dislocated teenagers but also those in relatively “conventional” households with caregivers.
“These kids get pushed into a position that higher-income peers just can’t imagine,” says Susan Popkin, co-author of the report, “where they feel responsible for helping their parents, they’re worried along with their parents, they’re going hungry along with their parents so that younger kids can eat.”
Surveys indicate an “estimated 6.8 million food-insecure young people ages 10 through 17, including 2.9 million with very low food security.” This means they cannot secure adequate food on a daily basis, undergoing a time in life that’s supposed to be carefree and full of potential leads to internalized shame.
“Teens fear stigma around hunger and actively hide it,” researchers observed. “Consequently, many teens refuse to accept food or assistance in public settings or from people outside a trusted circle of friends and family.” Many do not understand how to navigate social services to access food aid like local pantries.
In cities and rural towns, struggling from meal to meal induces emotional stress and frustration, along with deterioration of physical and mental health, which can impede teens’ cognitive development. Severe deprivation can also push many out of school, potentially leading to massive long-term impacts on young people’s career prospects in future years.
But food-insecure teens are almost disturbingly adaptable: They employ coping strategies ranging from self-sacrifice to “self-sabotage.” Focus-group discussions showed adolescents carefully calculating choices to secure the bare minimum for themselves and their families. A teenage boy in San Diego reflected that he knew people who “really struggle to get food…. they have to go through a starving period where they have to cut down on how much they eat.”