In the media, hunger is often depicted with the crying faces of small children. But the reality is that food insecurity has profound impact on every member of the family—no matter what their age. The statistics in this country alone are staggering—estimates pin the number of children ages 10 to 17 suffering from hunger in the United States at nearly 7 million.
Hunger doesn't just mean individuals going to bed with an empty stomach—it means serious societal problems for everyone. A new report from the Teens and Hunger Project from Feeding America, the nation's largest domestic hunger-relief organization, shows that food insecurity among teenagers has wide-ranging social effects that include "risky and potentially dangerous behaviors."
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The study surveyed 193 teenagers ages 13 to 18 in 10 communities around the United States. Some key findings were no surprise—fear of being stigmatized by their peers led teens to hide their issues and refuse food or assistance; a feeling of responsibility towards younger siblings means that many teens who go hungry choose to skip meals so other family members can eat; and while most teens who suffer from food insecurity would like to earn money through legal employment, oftentimes it's not possible in their communities.
That's when the dangerous behavior sets in. According to survey results, "When faced with acute food insecurity, teens in all but two of the communities reported that youth engage in criminal behavior, ranging from shoplifting to selling drugs or stealing items to resell for cash."
Food insecurity and a feeling of helplessness can also lead to teens becoming involved in the sex trade, and being exploited by adults. "Teens in all 10 communities talked about some young people 'selling their body' or using 'sex for money' to make ends meet," the study says. "However, these themes were strongest in high-poverty communities. Sexual exploitation most commonly took the form of transactional dating relationships with older adults."
Even more troubling—and heartbreaking—some teenagers even told researchers that they've considered going to jail in order to be able to eat.