Insufficient access to food is an issue that impacts many in the United States, including LGBTQ+ youth. However, due to the stigma LGBTQ+ youth face, they may have less access to food through programs designed to serve the general population (e.g., school meal programs and food pantries) and less support from families of origin than their cisgender, heterosexual peers. Community-based LGBTQ+ youth programs are a potential avenue to increase youth access to food. Thus, it is important to understand what LGBTQ+ youth programs are doing to feed youth—including learning from their successes and challenges. To gather this information, we surveyed 73 LGBTQ+ youth programs affiliated with the CenterLink network of LGBTQ+ community centers or identified through a targeted internet search in the summer of 2023.
LGBTQ+ Youth Food Insufficiency
- Half of LGBTQ+ youth organizations reported that more than 20% of the youth they served did not always have enough to eat in the past week.
- Older youth ages 18 to 25, transgender youth, and Black and Latinx youth more commonly did not have enough to eat.
- Unstable housing was the most frequent reason programs reported for why youth lack adequate access to food (84.9%), followed by lack of access to jobs that pay livable wages (71.2%), family food insecurity (68.5%), lack of family support (63.0%), and transportation barriers (47.9%).
- Most LGBTQ+ youth programs (73.2%) reported that more than one in ten of the LGBTQ+ youth they serve are unstably housed.
- Almost one-quarter of programs (23.3%) reported that at least 10% of the youth they serve were engaged in sex work to meet their basic needs, including food and shelter.
- Programs were more likely to identify several other food sources for LGBTQ+ youth besides their families of origin.
- The most frequently cited sources of food were community-based organizations, food pantries or kitchens (91.8%), chosen family or friends (82.2%), school meals (72.6%), and on their own by working (64.4%).
- Only 60.3% of programs identified family of origin as a food source for the youth they serve, just slightly more than the percentage (56.2%) who identified obtaining food through street economies, such as sex work, drug trade, and other nontraditional exchanges.
Strategies for Increasing Access to Food
- Programs have tried many strategies to facilitate access to food, including providing food directly and making referrals.
- Among the 65 programs that reported providing food directly, 100% provided staples or prepackaged food to take home, 96.9% offered on-site snacks, and 53.8% provided hot meals.
- Among the programs that provided food directly, less than half (42.2%) offered access to food daily, and over one-third offered food less than once a week or only on a case-by-case basis.
- Among the programs that did not provide food, insufficient financial resources (100.0%) and inadequate facilities (87.5%) were the most common reasons for not providing food.
- Only one program indicated that they do not provide food because the LGBTQ+ youth they served had stable access to food.
- Strategies tried by programs that provide food directly include the following:
- Providing food directly to youth in the form of meals or snacks (95.2%)
- Sharing information about local food resources (90.3%)
- Offering a food pantry (72.6%)
- Providing gift cards (66.1%)
- Providing eligibility counseling (56.5%) or enrollment assistance (50.0%) for SNAP, WIC, or other public benefits
The strategies that the programs identified as the most successful to increasing food access were providing meals or snacks directly, offering a food pantry, giving gift cards to grocery stores or restaurants, and providing cash assistance.
Lessons from Successful Strategies to Increase Access to Food
- Several programs mentioned that providing food to everyone, regardless of need, increased access and reduced stigma and shame around needing food.
We believe people when they say they need food assistance. We do not require any proof of need. Dinner is served to all youth regardless of need, lowering stigma of those participating in meals.
- Some programs emphasized youth engagement as central to their success—from consulting youth about what they want for on-site meals to assisting with running the food pantry to
We allow our youth to get involved. Specifically with things like restocking our pantry and organizing products. This helped with removing a lot of the stigma around accessing pantry foods. Our most successful strategy has been hiring youth with lived experience to advertise and manage the program.
- Other programs also said that providing meals and snacks in the context of other activities and programs helped to reduce stigma.
We host a monthly meal night where youth [ages] 16 to 24 can come get a hot meal. What makes this monthly offering so successful is that the theme changes every month, and youth know that they are also coming to join a fun event and not just get free food. Some examples are an open mic night or karaoke night. This breaks down some of the stigma youth may have around getting free food.
- Providing food directly was not only a way to meet the needs of youth facing food insecurity but also to bring them into the organization’s other programs, build community with each other, and create connection between them and the organizations more broadly.
Feeding people meets a need, but it also contributes to a welcoming environment. This is one of the ways we are able to demonstrate community care.
Youth bond over a shared meal, youth come from school as a group usually and are hungry and look forward to the food we have.
• Other programs described how external partnerships and collaborations contributed to their success.
From a sustainability/operational perspective, our most successful strategies include engaging local partners such as school districts and pantries.
Lessons from Less Successful Strategies to Increase Access to Food
Programs also shared insights from strategies that their organizations found less successful in increasing access to food for LGBTQ+ youth.
- Food pantry referrals. One program staff succinctly summarized several challenges related to using off-site charitable food resources.
Youth who were given other food bank information did not utilize those services. The main reasons were that food banks were at religious-based organizations, hours were too early, youth did not have documentation to meet requirements, and lack of transportation.
- On-site food pantries. Organizations described challenges offering on-site pantries, including youth not having resources to cook the food they received.
Shelf-stable food that requires many steps in cooking was our least successful strategy. Most youth either don’t have access to a place to cook or don’t have the desire to gain the skills for cooking.
- Shopping and cooking classes. Several organizations noted challenges with such classes, including low interest among youth.
The cooking classes were difficult to manage and did not draw attendance, both in-person and online.
- Cash aid. Several programs indicated organizational constraints in providing cash aid to youth for food and concerns that the funding would be used for other purposes.
Cash often got prioritized for other needs youth deemed more important, so food took a back seat.
- Public benefits. A few programs described the high level of effort required by youth and program staff to enroll in government assistance programs and a low level of return.
Florida SNAP benefits are really hard to access and when folks do qualify, it’s not enough money to actually survive.
I think they worked on a case-by-case individual level. However, they didn’t have major impact due to lack of capacity and the difficulty to know if youth followed up with the government assistance programs.
- Transportation assistance. Staff from several programs described offering transportation assistance as a “huge challenge” or identified distance and limited public transportation services as a barrier to connecting LGBTQ+ youth with resources.
[Offering transportation assistance was] not sustainable as the majority of our community members would need weekly transportation forever in order to keep accessing food.
Supporting LGBTQ+ Youth and Youth Organizations
- When asked to identify the top three broader changes that would increase access to food for LGBTQ+ youth, all three of the most selected changes focused on housing:
- Increasing access to youth transitional housing (76.7%)
- Increasing the availability of affordable housing (57.5%)
- Increasing access to housing vouchers for 18-to 25-year-olds (54.8%)
- In addition, the programs prioritized the following broader changes:
- Increasing the minimum wage (50.7%)
- Changing SNAP eligibility criteria (42.5%)
- Free or discounted transit passes (41.1%)
- Changing identity document laws (30.1%)
- Organizations indicated that flexible funding, partnerships with local businesses, and funding from local, state, or federal government would aid them in increasing their ability to provide food to youth.
Community-based LGBTQ+ youth programs are a viable mechanism to get food to LGBTQ+ youth. On-site meals, snacks, and food pantries are effective ways to provide food to youth and connect youth to services. Increasing access to consistent and flexible funding would support programs in feeding more youth more often. Programs identified housing as the number one barrier to food sufficiency for LGBTQ+ youth and endorsed increased access to youth transitional housing, housing vouchers, and more affordable housing as longer-term changes that would allow resources to be shifted from shelter to food. Future research should explore access to nutritionally adequate food, including access to fresh produce and hot meals, and strategies to improve access.