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Unpacking BackPacks: Addressing Stigma for Food Insecure Teens

On a recent February afternoon, social workers, school counselors, teachers, and church leaders from throughout Northwest North Carolina gathered around the long tables of Second Harvest’s meeting room.

“Are they self-conscious about it? Of course they are! In middle school they are self-conscious about everything!”

That is how the conversation started.

The question before the group today was stigma: the stigma associated with receiving food assistance for middle and high school students.

Second Harvest helps to provide food and coordination to 112 BackPack programs across Northwest North Carolina— these programs provide nutritious, kid-friendly foods for children to take home over the weekends during the school year. The BackPack program is part of a net of services including Second Harvest affiliated Kids Cafes, school pantries, and summer meals sites carefully positioned and located to meet kids nutritional needs.

Over 6,000 children are reached each week through Second Harvest’s BackPack programs (in January 2018, for example, we served 16,107 children). The vast majority of those receiving this food aid are in elementary school, however.

Common sense and research tell us that childhood food insecurity is not limited to these ages. In fact, an estimated 6.8 million kids ages 10 to 17 are food insecure–meaning they don’t have reliable access to enough affordable, nutritious food to be healthy. 2.9 million children this age are very food insecure, and roughly 4 million live in marginally food secure households, where the threat of running out of food at home is all too real.

Food insecurity takes a tremendous toll on teenagers. Poor nutrition—and the stress of hunger and poverty—can jeopardize their physical and mental health, their development and their academic success. So, how can we best reach them?

The people who gathered together at Second Harvest this particular February afternoon are the experts: they are the ones who day in and day out recruit the volunteers, fill the backpacks, meet with the students, and discreetly check in on them before homeroom.

“There are four key ingredients to a successful BackPack program,” says Cecil Cave of Mineral Springs Baptist Church, which works with Mineral Springs Middle School in Forsyth County. “The principle, the social workers, the school staff and the parents.”

Though some of those present at this gathering were from mountain communities and some were from schools in the city, each agreed that the same barriers are faced everywhere: lost forms, difficulty spreading the word, kids with too much to carry, and– all too often– pride.

“Middle school and high school are times when you are becoming yourself, learning to express yourself. Kids at this age want to… and should… feel pride. Being known as the kid who has to get help is just too much stigma,” said one local social worker.

The group brainstorms solutions. One school places the bags in students lockers while they are in class, so they don’t have to be pulled out of class to get the food– making the process more discrete.

Another concern for middle and high school students facing food insecurity is that the hunger can fuel other problematic behavior. It is well documented that for kids of all ages, hunger jeopardizes their ability to perform academically and socially, but teens are additionally at risk of employing dangerous strategies to make ends meet.

“We need to keep talking about this,” said Seth Lejuene of Second Harvest Food Bank who organized the meeting. “These are ages when kids are still growing and developing. They want to play sports, they want to achieve in school… and they need a healthy, full and nutritious diet to do that.”

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Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest NC

3655 Reed St. 

Winston-Salem, NC 27107

Tel: 336-784-5770

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