By Max Johnston
This story is the first segment in a two-part story on childhood hunger. Listen to it here.
According to the US Department of Agriculture, over 15 million households in the United States suffer from ‘food insecurity.’
Living in a food insecure household means that there isn’t easy access to high quality food. In fact, good food may be so hard to come by that it drives some kids and young adults to crime.
Susan Popkin is a Senior Fellow at The Urban Institute, a Washington DC-based thinktank.
She says food insecure households don’t have high-quality food, but they make do with what they have.
“They’re buying ramen noodles or something else that’s not perishable that they can keep around and is filling,” Popkin says. “It means a lot of times the adults in the house will go hungry or skip meals so that the kids can eat.”
Popkin and her team researched food insecurity in children and young adults from 10 communities across the country.
One of the many things that they found is that food insecure households are often located in so-called ‘food deserts.’ Areas, typically in cities, where grocery stores are few and far between.
“So instead they might have access to a bodega or a corner store where the prices are marked way up and the food quality is poor.” Popkin says. “They have to travel a long way to the full-service grocery store.”
Popkin says that most food insecure households qualify for some form of government assistance, but a lot of that money is used to just get them to a grocery store.
“I’ve talked to people that have spent an hour and half getting to the grocery store because they have to take two or three buses,” Popkin says.
Food insecurity trickles down to children and young adults, who often have a difficult decision to make. Some turn to crime to feed themselves and their families.
“Kids getting involved with stealing or even with feeling like they had to get involved with doing things for a gang and for girls getting involved with, they called it dating older guys,” Popkin says. “You know, they’re doing it because they don’t know what else to do.”
Popkin and her team at the Urban Institute found that being introduced to even small-scale crime at a young age had lasting effects on children and young adults. There were people from numerous communities that reported flunking out of school or seeing jail time.
The Urban Institute wanted to tackle food insecurity early on so they worked with a group of students near Portland, Oregon to design an after-school food program tailored to children and young adults.
“They came up with this idea that they would like to do a harvest share for their community. And that the kids would actually run the harvest share day. They set it up and checked everybody in and give everybody their grocery bag,” Popkin says.
Popkin says that having programs designed by and catered to children and teens got them access to food and brought in more people their age to the program.
A similar program has been operating in Lansing for the past decade. We’ll take a look at that program in part II of our series on childhood hunger.