Mike Blake/Reuters

A new working paper examines how poor U.S. families make tough decisions about stretching limited food.

A survey of 1,500 extremely poor families in Boston, Chicago, and San Antonio found that teenagers go without food twice as often as their younger brothers and sisters. The study, newly published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, dives into patterns of food allocation in extremely disadvantaged families and illustrates how limited food gets divvied up between children.

Poor parents may opt to forgo meals themselves first, but “then you’re forced to make choices, and parents are deciding to let the teens not have enough,” says Robert Moffitt, a professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University and lead researcher on the working paper.

The families in the study—predominantly African American or Hispanic, with average incomes around $1,558 a month—were surveyed several times between 1999 and 2005. Moffitt says that the findings are still relevant: “Over the years, we’ve seen the overall poverty rate decrease, but the problem of deep poverty has gotten worse,” he says. And according to a 2016 report by the Urban Institute and Feeding America, an estimated 6.8 million people between the ages of 10 and 17 face food insecurity across the U.S., revealing that an epidemic of teen hunger continues.

The three metro areas in the study, despite their differences, had plenty in common when it came to the results. “They all have similar poor populations, often facing the same challenges,” Moffitt says. “Our results could probably extend to other large cities in the country. The problems, when it comes to food, would be more similar than different.”

This survey isn’t the first to track the problem of teen hunger: The U.S. Department of Agriculture has conducted similar research, but the annual surveys ask about children as one unit. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), too, asks questions about an individual child’s food security—but the questions differ based on age, and are hard to compare. This new study, Moffitt explains, is the first to survey individual and specific children within families. “By doing so, you can look at the differences in food patterns and eating habits—whether a child is older or younger, boy or girl,” he says.

The study found that teen boys were particularly likely to go without food. (Courtesy of Johns Hopkins University)

The paper found that about 6 percent of children up to five years of age weren’t getting enough to eat, and children up to age 11 fared about the same. But nearly 12 percent of children between ages 12 and 18 regularly went hungry, with boys suffering the most—14 percent of them didn’t get enough food, compared to 10 percent of girls the same age. One possible explanation, Moffit says, is that the nutritional needs of toddlers are seen to be more urgent by parents. Their food also tends to be less expensive.

The authors did find that even among the very poor, different levels of hunger within households wasn’t as evident in families who routinely sat down for meals together. But this was seen to be more possible in family units where parents worked traditional 9-5 shifts, and made easier when there were two parental figures.

Once the authors noticed the disparity across their data, they thought about next steps—how can policy-making play a part in tackling the issue? One way, Moffitt says, is emergency assistance. Many of the families in the study suffered food scarcity issues during times of short-term financial strain, like job loss or illness. This highlighted a shortcoming of existing programs. “Just to establish eligibility for assistance can take up to two months,” Moffitt says. “The policies needed to address this, with some adjustments, could be modeled after emergency assistance initiatives.”

High schools can also intervene, Moffitt says. The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) has served tens of thousands of poor children, but Moffitt cautions that some students still fall through the cracks. Families with incomes lower than 130 percent of the poverty level ($30,615 for a family of four) are eligible for free meals; students from slightly higher-income families can qualify for subsidized lunches. But officials and experts have warned that high school students might perceive a stigma around participating. As more attention is given to the effects of food insecurity on teenagers, “it would be worth trying to draw up enterprising policies that increase collaboration with high schools,” says Moffitt.

Even so: Initiating a change in policy is one thing, but it boils down to the family level, too, Moffitt points out. “Obviously, parents are making these decisions because they don’t have any other option, but it will need to go beyond just policy—it’s still unclear how to tackle the issue of allocation on its own.”

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