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Diet, Childhood, and Homelessness: An Ohio Study

By Tess Sohgen

New Ohio Study Provides Insights into Food Access for Homeless Youths at a Drop-In Center

When you’re young and don’t have a suitable place to live, how do you eat?

A recent Ohio study examined exactly what food is provided at a youth drop-in center to answer this question. This study is the first of its kind to go into the service center and evaluate the food available to the 60-plus youths it serves every day.

While previous research has taken a broader lens to the food resources available to homeless youths, the results of this new study demonstrate what’s possible when a service center can provide a quality food environment to adolescents – and the “x-factor” for doing so.

How Many Youths Experience Homelessness?

Deemed “The nation’s invisible homeless population”, more teens and young adults are living on the street than ever before in US history, and their numbers are rising.

In one year, nearly 1.7 million youths will experience homelessness. These unaccompanied youths — any person under the age of 25 living without adequate housing and without a parent or guardian – are more vulnerable to the consequences of homelessness.

Without guardian supervision, these young men and women are more prone to victimization – trading sex and unpaid work, panhandling, and committing petty crimes for food or shelter. In their eat-or-be-eaten world, homelessness is the gatekeeper to experiencing violence, acute and long-term illness, and food insecurity.

The Food Environment for Unsheltered Youths

As many as 96% of youths experiencing homelessness are also affected by food insecurity, according to research by the Canadian Journal of Public Health, which has published several studies around youth homelessness and food resources in Toronto, where youths are also a growing portion of the country’s homeless population.

Here is just one example of how fast and deep the knife can cut for unsheltered youths. The lack of access to nutritional and adequate food has long-term negative health effects for young men and women.

“Inadequate nutrition can permanently alter children’s brain architecture and stunt their

intellectual capacity, affecting children’s learning, social interaction and productivity,” according to Feeding America’s 2018 Child Food Insecurity Module.

New Study – Evaluating Food Sources for Homeless Youths

With limited resources to find work and money, homeless youths often turn to charitable services, crime, and begging for food. Here are the most-common food sources for homeless youths, according to a study published in Public Health Nutrition journal: (65%) admitted to theft as a means to food, (63%) food supplemented by welfare agencies, (61%) begging for money or food, (44%) begging for food items, and (34%) asking for help from friends and relatives.

In a new and groundbreaking study from the Ohio State University Institutional Review Board, researchers evaluated the food at one of resources used most-extensively by youths experiencing homelessness: drop-in centers.

Drop-in shelters targeted specifically for youths are typically the initial point of service for these young people since they are less restrictive than other service centers and aim to build trust and relationships with these adolescences. But how are they able to provide food to youths, and does the food meet their health needs?

The researchers evaluated the variety and quality of food provided at a youth drop-in center in the Central Ohio region, assessing the type of food available, how accessible it was to youths in the center’s kitchen, and the health quality of those items.

Their findings were surprising to the researchers. Not only did the center offer a fairly high variety of fruits and vegetables but also limited obesogenic (unhealthful) foods accessible to the adolescents they served.

The X-Factor for Providing Adequate Food at Drop-in Centers

These findings sharply contrasted previous studies and hypotheses predicting that food provided at these types of shelters did not meet adolescent’s nutritional needs. Researchers speculate a notable x-factor for why the results from the Central Ohio study are so different: available funding.

The level of funding available to drop-in centers is a crucial determinant of the types of food organizations can offer its homeless populations. When the welfare center relies on charitable donations of food, the quality, quantity, and nutritional value of the food available plummets. On the contrary, centers that can afford to pay staff, purchase food, and cover the costs of rent and utilities does not depend on donated food.

This drop-in center in Central Ohio purchased most of the food it provides to young people from local food banks. The center also provides laundry, shower facilities, recreational activities, links to additional community resources, and beds to adolescents. On average, the center sees between 60-80 homeless youths ages 14-24 daily, with two to three new clients arriving each day.

In Summary

The study was the first of its kind and could contribute to more research in the future that examines homeless youth’s food environment.

However, since the study was conducted at the only youth drop-in center in the metropolitan area – and considering the money available to the center – these finding don’t attest to the food environment and availability of youth shelter houses elsewhere in the country.

This study simply shows that with adequate funding, services can be an adequate food resource for youths experiencing homelessness.

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