During the holiday season in the United States, our collective attention often turns to those experiencing hunger, homelessness and poverty. But everyday in this country, about 40 million people struggle with food insecurity and poverty, including about 6.8 million young people between ages 10-17 who are food insecure. In this brief, we review the definition and official measures of food insecurity; explore emerging research on the behavior of food-insecure teens in low-income neighborhoods; and describe GovEx projects and partners in this area.
What is food insecurity?
Officially defined by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), food insecurity is “the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.” USDA makes a distinction between food insecurity and hunger, in which food insecurity is an economic and social condition of limited access to food that affects households, and hunger is a physiological condition caused by food insecurity. Focusing on food insecurity rather than hunger places attention on the experience and context of households and individuals.
Food insecurity is a more refined measure of disadvantage than the poverty rate. Official statistics on poverty can be helpful to understand trends in the number and proportion of people who are disadvantaged. However, this measure does not reflect the full context of people experiencing poverty, including out of pocket costs for necessities like childcare, and benefits from government transfer programs. For instance, analysis of poverty using a Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) reveals that the poverty rate in 2012 was half what it would have been without government programs like SNAP, School Lunch Program, and WIC. The official poverty measure may be too broad an instrument to truly understand the experiences of people who are disadvantaged, and even the supplemental measure may not reveal the specific conditions and coping behaviors of people experiencing poverty.
Additionally, food insecurity is helpful to provide another layer of information about material hardship, which can measure not just whether a family’s income falls under a certain threshold, but whether they are able to meet their basic needs. Authors of a longitudinal study that asked New York City residents about “income poverty, material hardship, and health and well-being” note that understanding conditions beyond income can reveal information about stressors and other factors that underlie and exacerbate poverty. The authors concluded that even families with incomes that are above the official poverty line may experience material hardship like food insecurity, as well as physical or mental illness, and that counting income poverty may under count the true extent of disadvantage in this country.
Food insecurity is also important to address because of the long term consequences it can have on children and adolescents, particularly in the following domains:
- non-cognitive skills, which can affect a child’s subsequent socioeconomic outcomes
- physical health, which has been demonstrated to be affected by food insecurity more than poverty
- academic achievement, especially in math
- mental health, and behavioral problems, like depressive disorder and suicidal symptoms in adolescents
While the outcomes of food insecurity have been well-documented, there are still questions about how community-level policies and interventions can address the needs of young people who fall into the non-homogeneous category of “food insecure.”
Why focus on teens and food insecurity?
After a spike during the Great Recession, food insecurity rates have remained steady even as other economic indicators trend in the right direction. But just looking at the prevalence of food insecurity does not tell the whole story about the severity of food insecurity, especially among children and teens. The official food insecurity survey asks about food insecurity in households with and without children, but does not discern different age groups or behavior. Data on child food insecurity at the household level is also available through the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). A study that was updated in 2018 provides a more robust understanding of food insecurity at the level of a specific individual child, rather than at the household level, by analyzing survey data from very low households in neighborhoods in three high-poverty neighborhoods. One of the findings from this study is that food insecurity is higher among older children, and are sometimes higher among older boys than older girls. The study further explored the “child protection hypothesis,” which holds that parents sacrifice food in order to provide for their children, and found that older children had higher levels of food insecurity than younger ones.
A study by the Urban Institute also found that opportunity youth in Baltimore City are often responsible for contributing financially toward meeting basic necessities in Baltimore households, including food. From 2014-2016, researchers at the Urban Institute conducted focus groups with people aged 13-18 in order to gain a better understanding of teen food insecurity. The participating teens were receiving free- or reduced lunch, SNAP benefits, or some other type of food assistance. During the focus groups, participants noted that “parents try to protect teens from hunger and from bearing responsibility for providing for themselves or others.” Teens noted they also take on this role, bringing food and money into the house or sacrificing meals so that younger siblings can eat. Other findings are that teens would prefer to earn money through a job, but that employment options are limited. Teens also noted that some teens engage in risky behavior, such as going to jail, “selling their body,” or engaging in “sex for money,” although the authors noted that these themes are not representative of all teens, and are included in the report to illustrate dire behavior.
A research team that is focused on risk of adolescent health as part of the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg American Health Initiative conducted a participatory study to learn more about how adolescents in six neighborhoods with high proportions of opportunity youth experience and cope with food insecurity. One finding that was consistent across focus groups is that girls “prostitute for money to get food, sometimes as young as 8th grade,” while boys shoplift or sell drugs. Similar to the Urban Institute report, the researchers found that lack of jobs was one reason for negative coping behaviors. The authors recommend that food assistance solutions should be combined with services like youth programming or job training in order to reduce the stigma that is associated with receiving meals or donations (Mmari et al., 2018).
Connecting research with practice
A major discussion point of the Bloomberg research team is that current strategies to address food insecurity do not directly address the circumstances and needs of adolescents who are affected by the sacrifices and responsibilities that affect adolescents in low-income households. The next steps, as outlined by the researchers, is to work with community organizations and residents to explore a way to share study findings with the community, and incorporate community feedback into a plan for implementation (Mmari et al., 2018).
To assist and support this work, GovEx will be working with members of the Bloomberg research team; a Social Design Fellow from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA); a professor and researcher from the Department of Civil Engineering at JHU; Center for a Livable Future (CLF); and Baltimore’s Food Policy Initiative to develop an understanding of the landscape of food insecurity work in Baltimore, and to create and memorialize a process to help local community organizations and government policy staff understand and implement relevant research into their practices. This project is part of a larger initiative at GovEx that seeks to understand and, where possible, minimize barriers between researchers and practitioners in order to increase the utilization of research and evidence in practice.
Listen to GovEx’s podcast on Food Insecurity Among Teens featuring Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health and MICA.