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Drew Anthony Smith; Anna Fugate (hair & makeup)

STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.7, WHST.6-8.1, WHST.6-8.4, WHST.6-8.5, WHST.6-8.9, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.6, RI.6-8.7, RI.6-8.10, SL.6-8.1

NCSS: Individual Development and Identity • Individuals, Groups, and Institutions • Production, Distribution, and Consumption

THE BIG READ

U.S. Hunger Crisis

I Used to Be Hungry

Millions of teens in the United States don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Why are young people so vulnerable to hunger?

As You Read, Think About: What challenges might teens who experience hunger face?

As a seventh-grader, Draven Schoberg (above) and her younger sister had a strategy for days when they’d come home hungry after school to a mostly empty refrigerator.

The siblings, who lived with their grandparents in Miles, Texas, would search the house—rifling through drawers and turning over couch cushions—looking for quarters.

For 50 cents, they could get two granola bars at a nearby convenience store. That small snack would usually be enough to quiet their rumbling stomachs until dinner—which was often soup or, on a good day, a casserole made of ground beef and tater tots. 

During dinner, Draven would try to ignore how her grandparents took tiny portions of food so she and her sister could have more. Although she felt guilty, she would eat—knowing that her next meal wouldn’t be until lunch the following day.

As a seventh-grader, there were days when Draven Schoberg (above) and her younger sister would come home hungry after school. Their refrigerator was mostly empty. So they had a strategy.

The siblings lived with their grandparents in Miles, Texas. They would search the house for quarters. They would rifle through drawers and turn over couch cushions to find them.

For 50 cents, they could get two granola bars at a nearby convenience store. That small snack would usually be enough to quiet their rumbling stomachs until dinner, which was often soup. Or, on a good day, it was a casserole made of ground beef and tater tots.

During dinner, Draven would try to ignore how her grandparents took tiny portions of food. They did that so she and her sister could have more. Draven felt guilty. But she would eat. She knew that her next meal would not be until lunch the following day.

Draven qualified for the free-breakfast program at her school—one of the few students there who did. But she was too embarrassed to take part. She was afraid that if the other kids realized her family couldn’t afford to feed her at home, they would make fun of her.

“I definitely think my friends could tell that I was hungry,” Draven, now 20, says looking back. “My stomach would rumble during class, but I’d always try to laugh it off.”

Draven was just one of an estimated 7 million young people ages 10 to 17 who face food insecurity in the United States. In a food-insecure household, parents or guardians struggle to provide enough food—or the right kinds of healthy foods—because of a lack of money or other resources.

Draven qualified for the free-breakfast program at her school. She was one of the few students there who did. But she was too embarrassed to take part. She was afraid that if the other kids realized her family could not afford to feed her at home, they would make fun of her.

“I definitely think my friends could tell that I was hungry,” Draven, now 20, says looking back. “My stomach would rumble during class, but I’d always try to laugh it off.”

Draven was just one of an estimated 7 million young people ages 10 to 17 who face food insecurity in the United States. In a food-insecure household, parents or guardians struggle to provide enough food. Or they struggle to provide the right kinds of healthy foods. That is because they lack money or other resources.

11.2 million

Number of kids and teens who live in food-insecure households

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Experts say that while many charitable food programs exist for adults and younger children, fewer resources specifically target older kids. What’s more, food-insecure teens are often harder to reach because many of them are reluctant to accept help.

Like Draven, some teens are too embarrassed to admit that they’re hungry and don’t want to be seen accepting free food. 

“It’s easy to line up little kids and give them a backpack filled with food,” says Susan Popkin, a food-insecurity researcher. “But you can’t really do that with teens. There are stigmas about not wanting to stand out.”

This is especially harmful because teens are still growing. Research shows that without adequate nutrition, teens can suffer physically and emotionally, and struggle to concentrate in school.

Many charitable food programs exist for adults and younger children. But experts say that fewer resources specifically target older kids. Also, food-insecure teens are often harder to reach. That is because many of them are reluctant to accept help.

Like Draven, some teens are too embarrassed to admit that they are hungry. They do not want to be seen accepting free food.

“It’s easy to line up little kids and give them a backpack filled with food,” says Susan Popkin. She is a food-insecurity researcher. “But you can’t really do that with teens. There are stigmas about not wanting to stand out.”

This is especially harmful because teens are still growing. Research shows that without enough proper nutrition, teens can suffer physically and emotionally. They also can struggle to concentrate in school.

Terry Renna/AP Images

Programs that provide young kids with food for the weekend often aren’t available for teens.

A Nationwide Problem

Food insecurity has long been an issue in the U.S. (See “Understanding Hunger in America,” below.) Although the economy has improved since the Great Recession, many people still struggle to pay the bills and buy food for their families. As a result, 36 million Americans—including about 20 million children—get their groceries every month through the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). 

In addition, tens of millions of kids receive lunch for free or at a reduced price through the National School Lunch Program, which is also run by the government. Many schools provide free breakfast as well. 

But as was the case at Draven’s school, these programs are usually only for students who qualify based on their families’ need. Because of this, many eligible teens don’t participate for fear their classmates will find out about their families’ financial situation.

Food insecurity has long been an issue in the U.S. (See “Understanding Hunger in America,” below.) The economy has improved since the Great Recession. But many people still struggle to pay the bills and buy food for their families. As a result, 36 million Americans get their groceries every month through the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This includes about 20 million children.

In addition, tens of millions of kids receive lunch for free or at a reduced price through the National School Lunch Program. That program is also run by the government. Many schools provide free breakfast as well.

But as was the case at Draven’s school, these programs are usually only for students who qualify based on their families’ need. Because of this, many eligible teens do not participate. They fear their classmates will find out about their families’ financial situation.

What You Need to Know

Andrew Lichtenstein/Polaris Images

A man looks for work in New York in 2008.

Great Recession A period of economic decline in the U.S. that lasted from December 2007 to June 2009. More than 2 million businesses failed, and nearly 9 million people lost their jobs. Today, lingering effects of the recession are still being felt. Many Americans continue to struggle to afford food and other basic necessities.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) A government program that provides 36 million low-income Americans with funds to buy groceries. Formerly known as food stamps, SNAP benefits are distributed each month. The amount an eligible person receives is based on household size, income, and expenses. Recipients use special debit cards to buy groceries.

Great Recession A period of economic decline in the U.S. that lasted from December 2007 to June 2009. More than 2 million businesses failed, and nearly 9 million people lost their jobs. Today, lingering effects of the recession are still being felt. Many Americans continue to struggle to afford food and other basic necessities.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) A government program that provides 36 million low-income Americans with funds to buy groceries. Formerly known as food stamps, SNAP benefits are distributed each month. The amount an eligible person receives is based on household size, income, and expenses. Recipients use special debit cards to buy groceries.

Challenges of Teen Hunger

Across the country, many organizations provide elementary school students with backpacks filled with food to last through the weekend. But these programs are much less common in middle and high schools.

Such organizations often rely on donations. So when they do offer food to older kids, there isn’t always enough to last growing teens the whole weekend—especially if they share the food with their families. 

At the same time, teens in food-insecure households are painfully aware of their families’ financial struggles. Many of them try to help by limiting how much they eat, says Popkin. Some teens will skip meals or give their food to younger siblings. Others hope to be offered dinner at a friend’s house. 

“They feel the pressure that their parents are under,” Popkin says. “They’re old enough to be aware of it and they want to help, so they often go hungry along with their parents.”

Draven recalls doing everything she could to try to earn money to help her grandparents, who had been raising her and her sister since they were small children. Her grandfather, an artist, didn’t make a lot of money. And her grandmother was often too sick to work. 

So Draven babysat, watched neighbors’ pets, and even tried selling some of her drawings at school. She also helped her grandparents shop for groceries, typically passing over healthy but more expensive items like fruits and vegetables in favor of cheaper foods.

Across the country, many organizations give elementary school students backpacks filled with food to last through the weekend. But these programs are much less common in middle and high schools.

Such organizations often rely on donations. So when they do offer food to older kids, there is not always enough to last growing teens the whole weekend. That is especially true if the teens share the food with their families.

At the same time, teens in food-insecure households are painfully aware of their families’ financial struggles. Many of them try to help by limiting how much they eat, says Popkin. Some teens will skip meals. Or they will give their food to younger siblings. Others hope to be offered dinner at a friend’s house.

“They feel the pressure that their parents are under,” Popkin says. “They’re old enough to be aware of it and they want to help, so they often go hungry along with their parents.”

Draven recalls doing everything she could to try to earn money to help her grandparents. They had been raising her and her sister since the siblings were small children. Her grandfather was an artist. He did not make a lot of money. And her grandmother was often too sick to work.

So Draven babysat and watched neighbors’ pets. She even tried selling some of her drawings at school. She also helped her grandparents shop for groceries. She typically passed over healthy but more expensive items like fruits and vegetables in favor of cheaper foods.

59%

The share of teens who say they’ve come to school hungry 

SOURCE: No Kid Hungry

Effects on Students’ Health

Still, hunger was sometimes inevitable. When Draven didn’t get enough to eat, she would often feel sick or stressed out—and would stay home from school. 

Many food-insecure teens face similar struggles. According to one study, nearly 30 percent of teens living in food-insecure households have mental health problems such as depression or anxiety, compared with 9 percent of food-secure kids. 

“When you’re a teenager, you’re at a point in your life where everything is changing,” Draven says. “But when you also have to worry about where your next meal is coming from, it’s a whole other level of awful.”

Still, hunger was sometimes inevitable. When Draven did not get enough to eat, she would often feel sick or stressed out. And she would stay home from school.

Many food-insecure teens face similar struggles. According to one study, nearly 30 percent of teens living in food-insecure households have mental health problems such as depression or anxiety. That is compared with 9 percent of food-secure kids.

“When you’re a teenager, you’re at a point in your life where everything is changing,” Draven says. “But when you also have to worry about where your next meal is coming from, it’s a whole other level of awful.”

Drew Anthony Smith

Draven passes out breakfast at a middle school in Kyle, Texas, as part of her work with the Texas Hunger Initiative.

Helping Hungry Teens

Many experts agree that ending the teen hunger crisis has to start with addressing its root cause: family poverty. At the government level, they say, officials must improve access to better-quality jobs for parents and increase SNAP benefits for families.

Another important part of the solution, experts say, is to encourage teens to accept help. Young people need to know that hunger-relief organizations are available across the country and that there’s nothing wrong with taking advantage of their offerings. 

One way to encourage food-insecure teens to take part, says Popkin, is to combine charitable food programs with activities, such as basketball games or movie nights. That way, the focus is more on socializing and having fun—and less on the food.

School districts are also trying to address the teen hunger crisis. Some schools in western Ohio, for example, run a program in which volunteers discreetly place bags of food in students’ lockers every Friday so teens who would normally go hungry over the weekend can eat. 

Other schools, including many in Michigan, California, and Texas, are taking a new approach to free school breakfast. They offer the morning meal to all students, regardless of economic status. Students can pick up their food—usually bagels or muffins, fruit, and juice—on their way to class and eat as a group while their teacher takes attendance.

Many experts agree that ending the teen hunger crisis has to start with addressing its root cause. That is family poverty. They say that at the government level, officials must improve access to better-quality jobs for parents. Officials also must increase SNAP benefits for families.

Experts say that another important part of the solution is to encourage teens to accept help. Young people need to know that hunger-relief organizations are available across the country. They should know that there is nothing wrong with taking advantage of such offerings.

One way to encourage food-insecure teens to take part is to combine charitable food programs with activities, says Popkin. For example, activities could include basketball games or movie nights. That way, the focus is more on socializing and having fun—and less on the food.

School districts are also trying to address the teen hunger crisis. For example, some schools in western Ohio run a program in which volunteers discreetly place bags of food in students’ lockers every Friday. That way, teens who would normally go hungry over the weekend can eat.

Other schools are taking a new approach to free school breakfast. This includes many schools in Michigan, California, and Texas. They offer the morning meal to all students, regardless of economic status. Students can pick up their food on their way to class. The food is usually bagels or muffins, fruit, and juice. Students can eat as a group while their teacher takes attendance.

UNDERSTANDING

Hunger in America

An estimated 11.1 percent of U.S. households—about 37 million people—were food insecure in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s down from a high of about 50 million in 2009.

Although the economy is improving, experts say that many Americans are underemployed. Many others haven’t had a raise in several years. At the same time, the cost of living is increasing, as is the cost of food. As a result, millions of people are forced to rely on food banks and government assistance, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), to feed their families.

This past summer, President Donald Trump announced a plan that would cut SNAP benefits for more than 3 million Americans. The proposal is part of an effort to save the government money and reduce the number of people receiving government aid. Critics, however, say the cuts would hurt struggling families.

An estimated 11.1 percent of U.S. households—about 37 million people—were food insecure in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s down from a high of about 50 million in 2009.

Although the economy is improving, experts say that many Americans are underemployed. Many others haven’t had a raise in several years. At the same time, the cost of living is increasing, as is the cost of food. As a result, millions of people are forced to rely on food banks and government assistance, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), to feed their families.

This past summer, President Donald Trump announced a plan that would cut SNAP benefits for more than 3 million Americans. The proposal is part of an effort to save the government money and reduce the number of people receiving government aid. Critics, however, say the cuts would hurt struggling families.

“It’s Going to Get Better”

Life began to turn around for Draven when, at the age of 14, she and her sister moved in with their aunt and uncle, who eventually adopted the girls. Draven remained close with her grandparents, and everyone was better off financially. She no longer had to worry about having enough food and could focus on her grades. Today, she’s a student at the University of Texas at Austin.

But Draven hasn’t forgotten what it’s like to be food insecure. In her free time, she volunteers with hunger-relief organizations, such as No Kid Hungry and the Texas Hunger Initiative.

Life began to turn around for Draven when she was 14. That is when she and her sister moved in with their aunt and uncle, who eventually adopted the girls. Draven remained close with her grandparents. Everyone was better off financially. Draven no longer had to worry about having enough food. She could focus on her grades. Today, she is a student at the University of Texas at Austin.

But Draven has not forgotten what it is like to be food insecure. In her free time, she volunteers with hunger-relief organizations. These include No Kid Hungry and the Texas Hunger Initiative.

52%

Percentage of public school students who qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches

SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics

Her projects have included helping to run a summer program that pairs free lunches with activities such as sports and games and brainstorming ways to improve the quality of school meals in Austin. She also speaks to kids about the importance of eating breakfast.

Through her work, Draven tries to instill a sense of hope in the food-insecure teens she meets—and let them know that they should never be ashamed to accept help. 

“I know how hard it is to be so focused on where your next meal is coming from,” she says. “It can make you feel like you’re the only one who’s going through something like this. But I want them to know that it’s going to get better.” 

Her projects have included helping to run a summer program that pairs free lunches with activities such as sports and games, and brainstorming ways to improve the quality of school meals in Austin. She also speaks to kids about the importance of eating breakfast.

Through her work, Draven tries to give a sense of hope to the food-insecure teens she meets. And she tries to let them know that they should never be ashamed to accept help.

“I know how hard it is to be so focused on where your next meal is coming from,” she says. “It can make you feel like you’re the only one who’s going through something like this. But I want them to know that it’s going to get better.”