Grew up too fast: ActionAid evidence and recommendations on food poverty

More and more adolescents in Italy suffer the effects of food poverty. In addition to the inability to access adequate and quality food necessary for their livelihoods, for them suffering from food poverty also means not being able to live the social occasions related to food, live it stigma which generates living in a condition of precariousness and situations of stress which ensue. A set of needs and experiences that produce consequences above all in terms of psycho-physical well-being and which can have effects on the future as well as on the present.

This is what emerges from “You grew up too fast”, investigation by ActionAid Italy on adolescents living in families who, due to their condition of food poverty, turn to assistance bodies.

We asked Roberto Sensicoordinator of the research project, e Monica Palladinoa researcher who followed the conception, planning and implementation of the qualitative survey, to tell us how their survey was carried out and what are the main results that emerge.

What are the reasons that prompted you to investigate food poverty among adolescents?

The decision to investigate the impact of food poverty on this specific social group (11-17 years, ed.) starts from two considerations. The first is of a socio-economic nature: Child poverty in Italy is a constantly growing phenomenon, as Istat data confirms every year, and at the same time the interventions to combat food poverty are mainly aimed at the family and, only indirectly, at adolescents. Since food poverty is a consequence of poverty, its impact is more relevant in quantitative and qualitative terms precisely on those most exposed subjects as, indeed, i young.

The second consideration moved from the very concept of food poverty as a multidimensional phenomenon characterized by material aspects, which refer to the quantity and quality of the food consumed, and immaterial aspects, which have to do with sociality, culture and psychological and emotional aspects.

The hypothesis, later confirmed by field research, was that food poverty produces a significant impact, characterized by specific dynamics and modalities, right on the non-material dimensions of adolescent lifesuch as sociability and psychophysical well-being, which are fundamental factors for the growth of these children.

In the light of the data collected, what are the distinctive features of the phenomenon of food poverty among adolescents?

The experience of food poverty experienced by the adolescents interviewed is investing both material and non-material aspects of their life, which are, moreover, among themselves interconnected. Both are negatively conditioned quality and quantity of the food they eatboth the freedom to share food with friends and therefore the opportunities for socializing that are connected to food, including eating out together. Already the mere awareness of not being able to afford certain things, and the decision to avoid embarrassment by giving up going out with friends when and how they would like, is in itself the cause of uneaseand that’s something kids this age shouldn’t be forced into.

Compared to the material aspects of the “what” they eat, sometimes the teenagers have to give up foods that are important for a healthy diet. In some testimonies it came out as essential foods for growth and development, such as fresh meat and fish, in short supply. Pasta, on the other hand, is always there and perhaps they even consume too much since it happens that they eat it even twice a day. A certain aptitude for eating pre-cooked and pre-packaged food has also emerged because sometimes it is the only thing to do with parents who work all day. And this is a distinctive feature of the entire age group taken into consideration in this analysis.

Food poverty in Italy has never been so serious

Returning to the question of awareness that adolescents have of the economic situation of the family, this is certainly a distinctive feature of the results of this survey. The age range that we have considered is quite wide, but the answers collected show that being mature and awarei does not only concern older adolescents, as perhaps we could have expected, but in some cases this maturity appeared more marked in the younger age group, despite attempts by parents to protect them by trying to hide their conditions of economic hardship . These attempts often fail because there is a moment, a limit point in which the parents have to tell them that at that particular moment they cannot “satisfy” them, either for food or for some other request, such as maybe going out with friends or participating on a trip. This is what we are talking about when we talk about the emotional dimension of food poverty

What are the qualitative-quantitative tools that you have used to analyze the phenomenon? What are the innovative elements of these tools?

Choosing to use a qualitative-quantitative approach it has proved useful for several reasons. The two approaches, alone and together, allowed us to better explore what we wanted to investigate. Our analysis was guided by the desire to understand food poverty starting from the perspective of those who experience it on their own skin. In this sense, the use of a qualitative approach has certainly proved to be the most appropriate. Survey tools like mixed semi-structured interviewseven with the help of visual tools such as photographs and images (emoticons, ed), have been very effective in stimulating reflection and responses from the students.

But in the research we also dealt with numbers and of stats, because we know how important they are in other respects. An important element of innovation in this survey is how we integrated the two: attention to statistical survey tools, for example, was already born when the guidelines of the qualitative interview were defined. At that stage we thought of testing an experimental questionnaire “in the field” made up of closed-ended questions (and therefore suitable for opinion polls), linked to the conditions in which we imagined these young people could find themselves due to food poverty. The questionnaire was self-completed by the students at the conclusion of the qualitative interview and the results confirm the appropriateness of the questions asked and the ability they have to elicit information on exposure to negative consequences of food poverty which are invisible if investigated through existing quantitative survey tools at the moment.

School canteens: a fundamental tool for combating food poverty

The future intention is to extend the experimentation to wider and more differentiated samples (for example through schools) to validate the indicators that can be derived also from a statistical point of view.

What are the main results that emerge from the survey?

As already mentioned, bring out the strong awareness of living in a condition of economic hardship on the part of adolescents it is undoubtedly a first important result, above all because it is clear that it is accompanied by the feeling that somehow there is no solution. This results in an act of almost deliberate and conscious renunciation of what should instead be the normal light-heartedness of a teenager’s life, where you shouldn’t have any problems, for example, going out to eat with friends. We have verified that they are attentive adolescents, who observe what is happening in the family, and mature, who do not hesitate to offer their savings or in any case keep them thinking that their parents could use them.

What is important to bring to the attention of those who should respond through social policy actions is that all of this is linked to the emotional responses of the young people, which arose from questions aimed at understanding how these limits made them feel. That awareness generates fluctuating emotions: first of all sadness because it is clear that these kids feel different from the others, but then the sadness is replaced by resignation, because they understand/perceive that not only can they not do anything about it, but they recognize that their parents too have their hands tied in some way.

The precious thing that this investigation entrusts to us, however, is that the testimonies also return an image of positivity about the future, despite their recent experience during the pandemic which, as some of them told us: “it was quite destructive, a bit for anything, person, in thought”. Thought that, on the other hand, one might say has remained intact and healthy in these kids, is that it is everyone’s duty to continue to protect.

What are the recommendations for institutions emerging from the research?

A fundamental role in intervening in response to food poverty is played by policies to combat poverty. If the phenomenon cannot be limited to the condition of absolute poverty, there is no doubt that due to incidence and intensity, those who live in this condition are more exposed to the consequences of food poverty, both from a material and non-material point of view.

Enabling, collective and inclusive measures are needed against food poverty

Without effective anti-poverty measures, food poverty will continue to rise. For this reason it is necessary to strengthen and extend them to reach all those most exposed subjects such as, for example, minors and foreigners. It is also crucial to ensure a integrated access to servicessome of which should finally be considered as essential, starting, for example, from school canteens and transport, the costs of the latter weigh heavily on families with children with negative consequences on the sociality of the children.

At the same time governance models and law enforcement strategies must change who must be able to create a system among the public actors of territorial welfare, to plan interventions in an integrated way overcoming sectoralization and to be adequately informed, using analysis and data collection.

Grew up too fast: ActionAid evidence and recommendations on food poverty