What do you know about teen hunger? NOT childhood hunger, but teen hunger. Not much? I'm not surprised. While a silent epidemic of food insecurity rages within the population ages 13 to 19 nationwide, little specific data exists and outreach for this group is minimal. Yet: according to national studies, approximately 35 % of those served by food banks are children AND teens; university research has found that food insecure teenagers are twice as likely to have mental health issues and be suspended from school; teens with hunger issues have higher levels of aggression, hyperactivity and difficulty getting along with others; and food insecure teens have impaired cognitive functioning, lower test scores and are more likely to repeat a grade in school. So...why isn't more being done?
As a teen who, thankfully, doesn't have food insecurity, the past 4 years I have developed a passion and a mission to address, with my fellow teens, the problem of teen hunger. Let me start from the beginning...
Approximately 4 years ago, I learned that a teen shelter was set to open in my community. A newspaper article asked for donations of canned food to stock their kitchen. After I led my boy scout troop in a food drive, my father and I delivered the items to Urban Peak Colorado Springs. At that time, I asked if I could volunteer in some other way, but was politely told "no" as volunteers had to be 21 years old. Some months later I learned a friend from school was living at the shelter. I again called to volunteer. This time, I was put in touch with Renae Gannon, their new volunteer coordinator. She had an idea: would my family consider preparing the occasional Sunday evening dinner for teens staying at the shelter (from 10 to 20 at any given time)? I talked to my mom and we agreed to do it; but we committed to doing it not occasionally, but twice a month, on an ongoing basis. Well...that was about 3 years ago, and since that time, we've prepared over 70 meals for the teens. For my younger brother and I, it has meant leafing through cookbooks, planning teen-friendly menus that are well balanced, nutritious and economical (since my family pays for the food), and, of course, preparing the food. While the shelter has a cook Monday through Saturday, before we started cooking there was no regular Sunday night meal. After another volunteer cooked Sunday morning breakfast, the teens had to leave the shelter (it closed for the afternoon). With only the promise of leftovers for Sunday dinner, many of the teens would not return to the shelter, and go back out onto the streets...or worse. Because of our regular Sunday night meals, the teens now know before they leave that a good, hot dinner awaits them, and they return to the shelter. In fact, we now take requests, have planned special events (Easter brunch, Super Bowl Sunday, all German foods, southern favorites, etc.), and developed special recipes just for the teens (favorites are meatball lasagne, carrot slaw salad and "angel delight" dessert).
This led to the next phase of my involvement: writing a cookbook of teen friendly recipes. My brother and I solicited favorites from friends, neighbors, fellow Boy Scouts and others, as well as including those we have developed ourselves for the teens. Divided into three parts: snacks, suppers and sweets, the cookbook has been sold locally, with all proceeds going to Urban Peak.
Perhaps the next part of my mission, though, has also been the most exciting. Several years ago, I asked Ms. Gannon if she thought an event that would raise awareness and funds for teen hunger might be workable. She encouraged me, and I soon found a national restaurant chain that agreed to sponsor an event. After 9 months of planning, and three times of them cancelling the event, the chain finally said they'd "changed their minds" and would no longer help. Discouraged but not defeated, I tried another approach. I formed a community coalition, soliciting members from local government, food banks, Urban Peak, businesses and high schools. Also, Qdoba Restaurants agreed to be the signature sponsor for a teen hunger event. We dubbed the group "TeenFeed" and met at least twice a month for 7 months to first, research teen hunger, and second, create an awareness and fund raising event. During this phase, I wrote agendas, sent e-mails, drafted meeting minutes and did research.
I soon learned to wear some other new hats, as business manager, entrepreuner, marketing director, too! I wrote letters to 4 area high and 4 middle schools, with data about teen hunger and a description of the TeenFeed event, asking for participation. After many follow up phone calls and meetings, all the schools agreed to partipate in various ways. I then drafted announcements that were given at all the schools, with data about teen hunger, and these reached over 10,000 students (ages 11 -19), school administrators, teachers, counselors and staff. At several high schools, Qdoba set up taco bars, to which tickets were sold by school sponsoring groups. Also, student volunteers, wearing TeenFeed t-shirts I designed and had donated, handed out information cards with "help numbers" teens could call for assistance with food insecurity issues. At the middle schools chips and salsa bars were set up by Qdoba, with students again helping spread the word and raise money. Approximately $5,000 was raised, all proceeds going to Urban Peak for their outreach and programming for teens with food and shelter issues.
Also during this time, I drafted a proclamation that was signed by the mayor of Colorado Springs, declaring the last week in October as "Teen Hunger Awareness Week." He signed this at a ceremony with members of the TeenFeed Coalition in attendance. This proclamation was read at the City Council public meeting, which was also televised to approximately 500,000 local homes. Efforts are now underway to have the Governor of Colorado issue a similar proclamation.
Although the last local TeenFeed event was just held a few weeks ago, an incredible outcome now indicates this vision will go to a much bigger audience. Qdoba was so pleased with the outcome of the events, the company has decided to make teen hunger one of its signature philanthropic causes. Moreover, a packet has been put together, including a sample letter to schools, the announcment series, etc., that will be presented to Qdoba's franchisees, as a turn-key operation for TeenFeed events in communities all over the nation. Most importantly, this will allow teens to continue to work for their fellow teens in the causes of hunger and homelessness.
Local news coverage of my family's preparation of meals at the shelter, as well as articles about the TeenFeed events, have not only increased local awareness, but drawn national attention. CNN has now contacted my family to learn more about our work and mission, with some national attention possible.
The photos included in this application, show teens helping their fellow teens at TeenFeed high and middle school events, serving food, handing out "info cards," and marketing the cause. Additional photos show the signing ceremony with Mayor Lionel Rivera of Colorado Springs and the TeenFeed Coalition.
This personal passion has grown from collecting cans to making a difference in the lives of teens who struggle with food insecurity and its effects. I am committed to taking this message forward and outward and making every possible effort to eliminate teen hunger as the soonest possible time!