Almost 7 million kids aged 10-17 currently live in food-insecure households, meaning they don’t have reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. But do these older children face unique obstacles when it comes to alleviating hunger?
To answer that question, the Urban Institute and Feeding America recently convened 20 focus groups of teenagers across 10 communities to better understand how hunger affects this particular age group. Their joint report, issued last week, provides some disturbing findings.
According to the report, because teens are particularly sensitive to peer approval, a fear of social stigma can prevent them from taking advantage of food assistance even when it’s available. But teens are also often overlooked by many charitable anti-hunger efforts, such as weekend backpack programs that send home food with elementary-aged children.
As a result, in households where hunger was most acute, teens reported engaging in all kinds of risky behavior to obtain food, including: shoplifting food directly, selling drugs for cash and/or engaging in “transactional dating,” i.e., engaging in sexual relationships with older adults in exchange for food and money. In a few communities, some teens even viewed going to jail as a viable option to ensure regular meals. The report also revealed the degree to which hungry teens look out for each other and for their younger siblings, often forgoing meals or sharing their food with those also in need.
An executive summary of the report, called “Impossible Choices,” may be found here and I encourage you to read it. It offers an array of policy recommendations, including an expansion of SNAP (the federal food stamp program), creating more and better youth job opportunities, and creating teen-led food distribution programs.
But I was of course particularly interested in the role of school meals in addressing teen hunger. After all, one of the core purposes of the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program is to reach food-insecure children at school. But according to a companion report from Feeding America, “Bringing Teens to the Table,” many obstacles still prevent hungry teens from taking advantage of school meals:
- Many teens seem to be unaware of their eligibility for free school meals, or their families may not have applied for meal assistance. One teen interviewed said, “A lot of kids ask me to get lunch for them because I get free lunch, but they don’t get it.”
- When school breakfast is served early in the morning and only in the cafeteria, many teens can’t or won’t take advantage of it.
- While some hungry teens viewed school meals as life-saving, others found the quality of the food so poor that they avoided school meals despite their hunger.
- Many of the teens interviewed perceived that the investment in school food was too low, especially as compared to other school expenditures. As one teen noted, “They don’t spend to get good food but they can afford them iPads and laptops.”
Clearly, there’s more work to be done. We know that:
- Schools which offer breakfast in the classroom and/or during expanded hours during the school day (say, until 10am) do a better job of reaching hungry children.
- The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which makes school meals free for all students in high-poverty areas, effectively expands children’s access to food while also eliminating stigma. Yet the CEP is currently at risk of being significantly curtailed by House Republicans in the pending Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR).
- The current federal school meal reimbursement is widely considered to be too low to allow most schools to prepare fresher, from-scratch meals, but there’s no indication that this funding will be raised significantly any time soon.
- Schools need adequate kitchens to prepare better food, yet current federal school kitchen infrastructure funding (around $30-35 million annually) pales in comparison to actual need (estimated at around $5 billion nationwide).
All of this (with the exception of changing breakfast service) would obviously require more significant taxpayer investment in school meals. As a nation, however, we apparently lack the political will to make this investment. Indeed, efforts in the House, if successful, would begin to dismantle the national school meal program through the use of state block grants, a proposal that’s been sharply criticized by anti-hunger groups and the School Nutrition Association.
We know that chronic hunger seriously undermines kids’ physical and mental development, increases behavioral problems, encourages risky behavior and has lasting, detrimental effects on academic achievement and later job performance. So doesn’t a greater investment in school meals seem only prudent – indeed, highly cost-effective in the long run? Maybe my liberal leanings run too deep, but I’ll just never understand this disconnect.
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