Objective: To describe homeless youths’ experiences of food insecurity and examine the relation between chronic food deprivation and food acquisition practices.
Design: A cross-sectional survey of homeless youths was conducted in 2003 to assess their nutritional vulnerability and describe their food acquisition practices.
Setting: Toronto, Canada.
Subjects: Two hundred and sixty-one youths, aged 16–24 years, who had spent ten or more of the past thirty nights sleeping in a temporary shelter, public space or friend’s place, because they had no place of their own. Most participant recruitment (70 %) occurred outdoors, but 30 % were recruited in drop-in centres.
Results: Over the past 30 d, 28 % of males and 43 % of females experienced chronic food deprivation (i.e. reduced food intake for ≥10 d), and 32 % of females and 48 % of males reported problems obtaining water to drink. Most youths routinely obtained meals at charitable programmes and panhandled for money for food, and many routinely stole food or ate day-old food obtained from restaurants. In contrast, eating food discarded by others and postponing debt payments were strategies of desperation, more common among youths experiencing chronic food deprivation. Additionally, for males, deliberately seeking the company of friends, relatives or acquaintances to obtain food, and for females, borrowing money or trading sex for food, were associated with chronic food deprivation.
Conclusions: The pervasiveness and severity of food insecurity experienced by the youths and their desperate means of food acquisition highlight the need for more effective responses to the plight of homeless youths in Canadian cities.