Hungry teens constantly face humiliation
© Getty

Jerry, a Mexican-American middle-schooler in San Antonio, Texas, says he eats only beans for breakfast. His parents can’t pay the 35-cent price of a school lunch, so he has nothing to eat all day. Eight hundred miles away in rural Hale County, Alabama, a 14-year-old black youth named Charles has peas for breakfast. At lunchtime, he goes to the cafeteria, but like Jerry he has no money to actually eat. Sitting next to the other kids, he reveals in a near whisper, he “Be ashamed.”

These scenes from the 1968 CBS documentary, “Hunger in America,” could almost be from today. In the Urban Institute’s “Impossible Choices,” released in September, teenagers describe what happens when their families’ food stamps run out mid-month, when parents ’ wages cover only rent and utilities, when a package of ramen noodles may have to suffice for the day.

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“There’s a few people I know,” says a Latino boy in San Diego, “they really struggle to get food. So they have to go through a starving period where they have to cut down on how much they eat.”

In this “starving period,” many teens skip meals so their younger siblings can eat, a strategy their parents practice. If they attend school, they may depend only on school lunches, which are now free. Some squirrel away the food until evening so they can sleep at night. Trading their own well-being for that of young brothers and sisters is heroic, but these teens feel humiliated by their circumstances, as did Charles in 1968.

Many feel like “outcasts.” The San Diego youth quoted above, together with another boy in his focus group, claim that teens “have more insecurities about themselves,” so it particularly hurts when others are “nasty to you” or “look at you like you drunk.”

These teen voices, five decades apart, may be telling us the upcoming election is really about what it means to be an American. Who should our society respect? Who should we protect? Does everyone have a right to dignity?

During this troubling election season, we have been forced to confront what it means to be an American if you are Latino, black, an immigrant, or if you are a woman. Where’s the platform and where are the talking points for Americans who are starving from undernutrition associated with poverty in this wealthy land?

A staggering 12.7 percent of U.S. households experienced “food insecurity” in 2015, according to theU.S. Department of Agriculture, and the numbers soar to an almost inconceivable 21.5 percent for blacks and 19 percent for Latinos. Americans in these households could not access enough food to support their health and well-being for all or part of the year.

“Food security” is an important standardized measurement, but the statistics may not burst the bubble that we “food secure” people inhabit, for whom the term might suggest comfort food made from locally sourced organic ingredients. What a shock, then, to hear from a teen that when food stamps run out, his friends “go through a starving period.”

For decades, political rhetoric has blamed such dire circumstances on poor people themselves, suggesting that “they”—understood in racial and gendered terms—need to be taught personal responsibility. In fact, as was true 50 years ago, those struggling the hardest to make ends meet mayface the highest hurdles due to inhumane restrictions on food programs.

From 1967 to 1977, public ferment over starvation, malnutrition and hunger in the world’s wealthiest country pressured the federal government to remove restrictions that essentially barred the poorest families in certain counties from obtaining food stamps. The 1964 Food Stamp Act promised a varied, nutritious diet. The otherwise well-intentioned USDA undercut that potential when, under pressure from powerful southern congressmen, it allowed county officials to decide whether to implement a federal food program, and if so which one. 

We hear echoes of that localization today in U.S. House Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanRyan: Graham-Cassidy 'best, last chance' to repeal ObamaCare Ryan: Americans want to see Trump talking with Dem leaders Overnight Finance: CBO to release limited analysis of ObamaCare repeal bill | DOJ investigates Equifax stock sales | House weighs tougher rules for banks dealing with North Korea MORE’s intention to eliminate the food stamps program (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and other antipoverty programs and instead give block grants to states to devise their own plans.

This policy already has proven disastrous in thousands of counties. Bexar County, where San Antonio is located, stuck with the older surplus commodities program, so Jerry’s family could obtain foodstuffs like beans, cornmeal and flour, but not those with the necessary nutrients for children, and never enough. Rural Hale County switched from surplus commodities to food stamps, but because the Food Stamp Act required all recipients to pay a monthly fee, it increased rather than decreased malnutrition for families that couldn’t afford to pay.

By 1977, however, vigorous campaigns inside and outside of Congress had achieved a nationwide food stamp program, available to all whose income fell at or near the poverty line, with no monthly fees. Infant mortality and childhood malnutrition shrank notably as a result.

So things are not “still the same.” Not still, but again are teenagers skipping meals and paying the physical and emotional consequences when the wages earned working parents are so low that, as in 1968, they go to rent and utilities. Food stamps can be a literal lifeline for their children, and yet they run out mid-month. 

Not then and not now are teens unaware of cultural currents that imagine parents like theirs, particularly if they are people of color, as lazy, ignorant, promiscuous, dishonest, addicted to drugs, and/or in need of some lessons in personal responsibility, nor do they miss it for a second when they themselves become the butt of such caricatures.

Do these teens and their families, whose voices had nearly been lost in the political conversation about food insecurity, have a right to dignity? Let’s not let these voices get drowned out.

Laurie B. Green, Ph.D., a Public Voices Fellow, is a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin.