As LGBTQ teens find themselves at the center of increasingly controversial political debates and legislation, snack closets and drop-in spaces across the country are offering food, community, and a safe place to be a kid
Illustrations by Bea Hayward
As a teenager, I yearned for one moment above all others: 3:10 p.m., when the school bell would ring, sharp and clear, signaling the end of the day. My large public high school had almost 4,000 students. For eight hours, we shuffled between geometry and physical education classes, colliding against one another in a tidal wave of hormones that no one seemed willing to acknowledge or address. As we moved, each person’s sweaty insecurities knocked against my own, making it difficult to think.
This feeling was exacerbated by the fact that I often experienced a voracious, pubescent hunger that transformed each hour into a series of question marks: Was lunch soon? Did I have enough food in my bag? Would I get punished for eating chips in class?
But when 3:10 p.m. rolled around, I was able to escape into a world of my own making. My parents worked full time, and my sibling is five years older than me, which meant that for most of high school, I had space to be home alone with my thoughts. The moment I walked through the front door, desperate for quiet and my stomach rumbling, I beelined for the kitchen and made Annie’s mac and cheese. It felt lavish to boil water and mix the pasta with butter, milk, and powdered cheese, creating a simple but luxurious feast for one.
As I ate, I spent hours writing in my journal, connecting the dots between my hunger for sex and my hunger for food and questioning who had made me feel humiliated for desiring either. I watched YouTube videos of Beth Ditto tearing up the stage as the lead singer of Gossip and read Tumblr quotes from bell hooks’s writing and live talks that I pinned to my wall.
Bite by bite, I began to understand who I was: someone following in the footsteps of Ditto and hooks, creating a life rooted in self-love, radicalism, and a deep sense of collective care. That afternoon ritual taught me how much the context in which we eat matters and how having a safe environment to ask questions and explore our desires can be the difference between self-acceptance and lifelong feelings of shame. As laws sweep across the country targeting queer and trans youth, spaces in which young people can eat and explore the map of their identities are essential.
Snack closets have emerged across the country to support LGBTQ youth by operating as sites where young people can grab their favorite foods, free of charge or judgment. They are often tied to free “drop-in spaces,” where teens can nap or wash their clothes. From the Harlem neighborhood in New York to Spartanburg, South Carolina, snack closets provide a longed-for moment of safety, exploration, and rest. This is particularly important for unhoused queer and trans youth, who experience food insecurity at almost three times the rate of their housed LGBTQ peers.
Unlike community fridges, which have also emerged to address rising food insecurity across the country, snack closets and drop-in spaces afford those who use them a higher degree of privacy. Teens can simply walk in, grab a handful of Oreos, and flop down on a nearby couch to nap or cry. Or, similar to my own high school experience, they can use the space to journal and ask questions beyond adults’ prying eyes and ears. Such comfort also distinguishes these snack closets from other spaces like shelters. They show that it’s okay to lounge and get comfortable.
These are a few of the organizations addressing food insecurity and providing havens for LGBTQ youth across the country.
Originally working from the basement of her local church, Deb Foreman co-founded Uplift Outreach Center in order to create a space where her trans son, who is now an adult, could have thrived in his adolescence. And her parental impulse is apparent in the snack closet she maintains. Packets of Ritz Bits, Oreos, and pretzels are carefully tucked into plastic bins; family-size boxes of Takis and Tostitos are perched on top. The Spartanburg, South Carolina, center’s drop-in space also includes a full kitchen where young people can bake, heat up meals, or even make themselves pancakes for dinner — a recent favorite. Foreman and Jodi Snyder, Uplift’s program director, say the snacks are a necessary component of all their programming. “Food brings everyone to the party!” Snyder says.
The two have seen how food can help people unwind. A few months ago, after noticing that queer and trans young people were often given sexual health workshops that felt punitive, Snyder decided to host a workshop that centered on pleasure. She invited the Berkana Collective, an organization that provides queer- and trans-affirming therapy and sexual health education in South Carolina, to teach. At first, the attendees were shy. Sexual health is difficult to discuss for any teenager, but the stigma and shame that still surrounds queer and trans sex can make it feel impossible for LGBTQ youth to open up.
However, Snyder says, after the kids grabbed snacks, “questions that they had always wanted to ask just started spilling out of them.” She attributes the change in demeanor to the food, which helped make the workshop feel like a more casual, living room-style conversation. It was a far cry from the often cold, judgmental, and regularly inaccurate sexual education that too many young people continue to receive in school. Whether it’s for sex ed or snacks, “we’re just here for kids, whatever they need.”
In the spring of 2022, Alabama became the second state in the country to pass a ban on gender-affirming care for minors. In total, more than 20 states have passed similar bans. “Kids feel panicked and overwhelmed,” says Amanda Keller, founding director of Magic City Acceptance Center in Birmingham. “They don’t know where they can be safe anymore, and they don’t think there’s going to be relief in the near future. But we don’t always talk about it while we’re here.” A commitment to joy is part of the center’s appeal for the dozens of queer and trans youth who visit the drop-in space each week.
Originally founded in 2014 as part of Birmingham AIDS Outreach, the organization has since transformed into a youth-centered space that provides mental health resources, sexual health classes, and an active snack closet. It is a hub of safety and relief for Alabama’s youths. Sometimes that means an unhoused young person will drop in to use the organization’s washer and dryer or a group of high schoolers will discuss what they plan to wear for Pride Prom (this year’s theme was “Yeehaw Neon”). “When we’re here, we have so much joy,” Keller says.
And no small part of that comes back to snacks. Although Keller and Assistant Director Lauren Jacobs — who used to be a student in the program — coordinate the center’s workshops, they say that everyone eating together often provides the most honest, riveting conversations.
“My favorite thing is when we get deep in a conversation and things are getting exciting and interesting, and someone will pop up and say, ‘I need more chips!’” Keller says. “It provides a moment to rest and recenter. It’s the lifeline of the work we do.”
Sarah Mikhail, the executive director of Time Out Youth in Charlotte, North Carolina, likes to call her organization’s snack and supplies closet “the gay Walmart.” There, kids can find everything they need to move through daily life, including chips, microwavable meals, condoms, and full-sized bottles of soap and shampoo. “We want this to be a soft place to land,” she says, noting the organization’s fluffy couch, games, and free snacks. “We’re trying to create our own version of queer home, of queer family.”
Part of that goal is cultivating a sense of safety for LGBTQ youth who may have never experienced that before. Mikhail points to research from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network as evidence: In 2021, 81.8 percent of surveyed LGBTQ+ students reported feeling unsafe at school. “Time Out’s drop-in space might be the only place throughout their day where kids can come and feel supported,” she says.
Mikhail is acutely aware of the importance of such a space. As a former social worker, she is emphatic about the impact that food insecurity has on teenagers, who are in a key phase of development. “Kids can’t and shouldn’t be expected to function when they are hungry,” she says. However, many nonprofit organizations do not emphasize food access in their work, which, Mikhail says, makes other services moot. “Some of our young people are food insecure very often, and that makes it impossible to receive things like job training or mental health services,” she says. Lack of access to food can keep young people trapped in a cycle of homelessness and poverty.
By ensuring the snack closet is always full, Mikhail, the volunteers, and the donors she works with want young people to know there will always be food available to them. The open, accessible nature of the snack closet reduces the anxiety and panic that hunger can spark and the long-lasting damage it can inflict on an individual’s relationship with food — all of which too often go unaddressed.
“We’re trying to remove as many barriers as possible for our young people to thrive,” she says. “Everybody fights over the noodles. Oh, and Pop-Tarts!”
In many ways, the Ali Forney Center is the blueprint for LGBTQ youth drop-in centers. Hidden on the second floor of a hyper-industrial building on West 38th Street, it was one of the first drop-in spaces to open in 2012 and is one of the rare centers that operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Bill Torres, director of support services, describes these drop-in spaces as “the first touch point in what we hope will be a long, mutually supportive relationship.”
The meal program, known as “the Shady Kitchen,” is spearheaded by Jess Tell, the center’s director of culinary programming. In addition to creating daily meals, he also makes grab-and-go snack bags filled with granola bars, roasted almonds, Goldfish crackers, animal crackers, pretzels, apple sauce, and turkey-and-cheese sandwiches. In 2021 alone, the center served more than 378,000 meals and gave out thousands more snacks.
The meals, however, do much more than fill young people up nutritionally. “Eating together is often the first place where I tell a young person about the services we have,” Torres says. This initial intake includes services like hot showers, clean clothing, and even a free medical checkup.
At a deeper level, though, Torres sees the drop-in center and food services as a means to provide the feelings of joy and ease that are so often denied to homeless queer and trans youth.
“We’re told that these moments — eating a snack on the couch or reading a book with your parents — are icing on the cake of life, but it is impossible to face the brutality of this world if you don’t have that reserve of joy,” he says. And so, while not a permanent solution, snack closets and drop-in spaces offer the solace that every child deserves to become their fullest, freest self. And that solace may come in the form of Tell’s famous mac and cheese or a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. “We slowly work up to vegetables,” Torres says.
Colleen Hamilton is a queer femme writer and editor from the San Francisco Bay Area. With a special focus on grassroots activism and youth culture, she is interested in hope as a catalyst for social change.
Bea Hayward is an illustrator and comic artist from California whose work draws inspiration from the cartoons, children’s books, band art, and T-shirt designs she grew up admiring, the people and world around her, and her imagination.
Copy edited by Diana D’Abruzzo