Teens in the U.S. are increasingly turning to risky behavior because of a lack of ready access to food and nourishment, according to two new studies released Monday in tandem. One report — "Impossible Choices" — details how nearly 7 million American teens are reacting to not having food that is accessible on a regular basis. That lack of food has reportedly made some youth increasingly susceptible to being exploited sexually, most of whom are girls.
"It’s really like selling yourself," one unidentified teenage girl said, according to the Urban Institute's study. "You’ll do whatever you need to do to get money or eat."
That reality has put affected children into a category of life that Urban Institute calls "structurally disadvantaged," which refers to those living in low-income environments. That lifestyle can force minors to all but abandon a traditional childhood in order to survive. But it is also hardly sustainable and can many times adversely affect their performances in school as well as in society at large.
Other at-risk behavior that exhibited by hungry children can include theft, drug dealing and drug and alcohol abuse, the report found.
A separate study by a nonprofit called Feeding America and conducted with the Urban Institute takes a close look at other ways hunger and a lack of access to food is affecting teens, including the types of coping mechanisms they are left to report to because they don't have food.
One of the more telling conclusions the Feeding America study arrived at was that both teens who don't have ready access to food as well as those who do equally understand the severity and the "stigma" that comes with the issue. Some of the potential solutions include needy teens not taking advantage of free food programs, such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits that used to be more commonly known as food stamps. Many of the children surveyed in the focus groups mistaenly thought they were not eligible for such benefits.
While child hunger is a serious issue, that was not the most alarming part of the findings, according to one person who worked on both studies. Instead, it was the "transactional dating" -- exchanging sexual favors for food -- which the seasoned researcher was highly concerned with.
"I’ve been doing research in low-income communities for a long time, and I’ve written extensively about the experiences of women in high poverty communities and the risk of sexual exploitation, but this was new,” Urban Institute fellow Susan Popkin told the Guardian. "Even for me, who has been paying attention to this and has heard women tell their stories for a long time, the extent to which we were hearing about food being related to this vulnerability was new and shocking to me, and the level of desperation that it implies was really shocking to me. It’s a situation I think is just getting worse over time."