Food-Insecure Teens Focus on Helping Moms Put Food on the Table, says New Rutgers–Camden Research

By Tom McLaughlin

As Kate Cairns explains, when it comes to discussing food insecurity – the lack of consistent access to nutritious, culturally appropriate food – her research shows a surprising finding: young people don’t focus on their own hunger, but rather on how they can help their mothers put food on the table.

Fruit market with various colorful fresh fruits and vegetables“They aren’t taking on the same burden that their mothers do, but they position themselves as allies of mothers who are struggling to provide in the context of poverty,” says Cairns, an assistant professor of childhood studies at Rutgers University?Camden.

Just as critically, she notes, these findings show that when governments fail to provide sufficient supports for families in poverty, it may be youth who are filling that gap.

In a research paper published in the journal Children & Society, Cairns shares ethnographic observations to show how young people discussed food security in workshops and conversations with peers during a summer work program in Camden. She then analyzed interviews with four teenagers who shared personal experiences with food insecurity and considers how their accounts contribute to a relational conception of foodwork.

The Rutgers?Camden researcher’s findings came out of a broader research project that looked at the rise of educational and community initiatives to connect youth with their food. In summer 2016, Cairns spent two to three days a week working alongside Camden teenagers, ages 14 to 18 years old, to grow vegetables in urban gardens and then sell the produce at a weekly food stand.

The participants routinely spent the mornings outside planting, weeding, watering, and working in the gardens, recalls Cairns. Under guidance of adult facilitators and youth leaders, they would then cook a collective lunch and eat together. In the afternoons, they regularly attended youth-led workshops exploring critical issues, including one focusing on food insecurity and the heightened impact it had on certain groups, such as people of color and single-parent households.

Prof. Cate KairnsAt the end of the summer, Cairns interviewed youth about their experiences participating in the program, as well as on their personal reflections on topics that had been discussed in a group setting. Several youth discussed their own struggles with food insecurity.

“They said that sometimes there wasn’t anything to eat in the house or they needed to ration food with their siblings,” says Cairns.

However, says the researcher, the teenagers consistently talked about food insecurity through the lens of seeing their mother struggle with stress. In each instance, they had developed certain strategies to help their mothers meet the demands of providing for them.

For example, she notes, one teenager said that the primary reason that he got the summer job was to help his mom out; he ended up giving half his paycheck to her.

“He was very adamant in clarifying to me that he did this because he wanted to; she didn’t ask him to do it,” she says. “He said that it felt good to support his mom.”

Another teenager, continues Cairns, routinely took home the produce left over from the market – an option that all the participants had – and helped to make dinner for her family.

“She was proud that she figured out how to cook eggplant,” says Cairns.

Moreover, says Cairns, another teenager framed her contributions in terms of emotional support, offering an ear to listen when her mom needed to vent.

“These findings have significant implications,” says Cairns. “Often we think about children as the recipients of care, but here we see the way that youth are participating in relations of mutual obligation and interdependency.”

Furthermore, says the Rutgers?Camden researcher, it shows that children and youth aren’t just defined in terms of their future potential, but are “actively participating, contributing, to life in the present.”

In another words, says Cairns, just like the vegetables they sold at the market, it shows that they, too, are helping others grow.

When it comes to educational programming, she adds, the research shows the limitations of taking an individualized approach to influencing youths’ eating habits. Typically, she says, nutrition is defined as an educated choice; if only people knew to eat more fruits and vegetables, they would improve their eating habits.

“That approach ignores the economic constraints that are shaping the foods that we eat,” she says.

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