When Lanarion Norwood Jr. was 9 years old, he opened his family’s refrigerator to find it almost empty. His grandmother, unemployed because of disability, had run out of food for the month. So Norwood did what many young children adamantly resist: He went to bed early. Sleeping, he reasoned, would help him suppress hunger, and he knew the next day he could eat at his Atlanta school.
That memory is one of Norwood’s earliest recollections of being hungry, but not his last. As a teenager, his food concerns grew with his appetite. “I would plan out my meal[s],” Norwood says, now a freshman at Morehouse College in Atlanta. “I knew I could eat breakfast and lunch at school and I could eat again later at [an afterschool mentoring program].”
Lots of kids like Norwood rely on schools for food their families can’t afford. Federal programs like the National School Lunch Program offer free or discounted meals to children from low-income families. But two reports out this month from the Urban Institute and Feeding America suggest one group is falling through the cracks: teenagers. Roughly 7 million children in the U.S. aged 10-17 struggle with hunger, according to one report, which examines teenage access to food. Dogged by hunger, teenagers may try a wide range of solutions, from asking friends for meals to bartering sex for food.
To learn about teen hunger, the researchers partnered with food banks and, with funding from Conagra, conducted 20 focus groups across the country with adolescents from low-income families. The researchers found two challenges to feeding teens in need: First, some of the charitable programs that target young children — like backpack programs that allow kids to take food home over the weekend — aren’t always offered to teenagers. And second, even when programs are available, teenagers feel more self-conscious about accepting free food or may not realize that they are eligible for the assistance.
Lead researcher Susan Popkin of the Urban Institute explains why the challenges facing teenagers are unique: “It’s easier to get to little kids. They’re all in school. They’re certainly more cooperative. Teens are often seen as the problem. Not as part of the solution.”
Teens, Popkin explains, are more aware of the stigma associated with a free lunch than younger children. They’re also at an age where fitting in is paramount. So many teens will forego official programs and try to get meals from other places – by going to a friend’s house with a well-stocked pantry, for example.
Norwood says pride is a major hurdle. “Why should I have to go through a program just to eat when I’m almost grown?” he says, describing the attitude of some of his peers.
Even adolescents who do opt to take advantage of school programs may not get a good meal, according to Popkin, because they often receive the same portion sizes as elementary school children. What’s more, teens often squirrel the meal away for younger siblings.
“They feel the pressure that their parents are under,” she says. “They’re old enough to be aware of it and they want to help. They go hungry along with their parents.”
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