Kris’ Corner – Food Scarcity or Food Insecurity Behaviors

September 30, 2021

Often when a child first enters the foster system, the full picture is not known regarding what he/she experienced with their biological family…let alone what behavior they might exhibit as a result of their previous care. DCS and Children’s Bureau will give you as much information as they have available at the time of placement, but they clearly will not know everything straight out of the gate. 

It is more likely that you, as the foster parents, will tell DCS and the licensing agency about the issues or behaviors of the child. One of those possible things has to do with food scarcity or food insecurity. 

There are a couple ways this can manifest in a child’s behavior and this is often through either the specific foods they will (or won’t) eat, and/or food hoarding. 

Sometimes when children come into care, they have a short (or VERY SHORT) list of foods they will eat. This may have to do with what they were previously served. It may have to do with sensory issues which make certain foods difficult to eat simply because of the texture (or they may be sensory seeking or sensory adverse, which adds additional challenges). Or it is simply due to the emotional connection they might feel with their family through a specific food or foods. 

This is not a blanket statement for all children coming into care, however the foods a child chooses to eat are often not what you choose to serve. I would encourage you to let that battle go, at least in the interim. Additionally, try not to refer to their preferred food as “junk” food, because it is what has more than likely sustained them up to this point. And in much the same way that a foster child should not have their possessions transported in a trash bag, they should not have the food they eat be called “junk”…it is, after all, a part of their emotional connection with a biological family, and there should not be any insinuation that either he/she or their biological family are junk. 

Point being…if at all possible, try to focus less on what they’re eating and work more on making a connection with them. Offer them additional choices beyond their current food preferences, and over time, they may take you up on it. 

If not, it won’t be the end of the world. You clearly would like them to eat a balanced (or at least a MORE balanced) diet, but it might be that this will just have to evolve over time as you help them work through the trauma they’ve experienced and help them with feel safe. 

Now…the other possible behavior a child may display concerning food, is hoarding. It’s probably fairly obvious why a child would hoard food, but just in case it is not, here is an explanation in a nutshell: it often comes about when a child has come from a situation in which he/she had no idea if and when the next meal was coming. Maybe there was little to no food in the house, and no money for food. So, they learned that if there was an opportunity to get their hands on food, they were going to take that opportunity, regardless of whether it was right or wrong. Often this is not an intentional decision; it is simply a response to a traumatic situation…a primal response born out of fear. 

As a result, when a child comes into foster care from such an environment, or even from an environment in which there’s a scarcity of food in their biological family home (maybe never quite enough but there is some), and they now see the refrigerator and cabinets full of food, they don’t quite know what to do with that. It’s overwhelming and tempting to not want it take it and keep it for themselves. So sometimes they do. 

Knowing that this behavior is not what they probably *should* do, they hide it or eat all of it and hide the wrappers. I’ve heard several foster parents talk about discovering rotten, moldy, or melted frozen food stuffed between mattresses, under beds or hidden in the backs of closets or drawers. The child is living out of their scarcity, and trying to ensure their safety and survival. The message to you, as the foster parent, is not only about what has happened to him/her, but also that he/she does not feel safe in the foster home.  

So, if this happens, remain calm, regulated and present. Talk to the child about it, but not in a demeaning tone. And if you have to, show them again all the food available to them. 

This may bear repeating more than once. 

All that said, a child may SAY that they feel safe, but truly experiencing felt safety will involve an understanding that the food will always be there and they don’t have to hoard it for later. One of the techniques that seems to be most effective is keeping a basket or box of snacks on a counter in the kitchen or on a bedroom nightstand…or in both places. The child can choose to eat as much of the food as they want and the food is accessible to her 24-hours a day.  

Initially, a child might eat everything in the basket. And they might do this for several days in a row. But after they do this and always find that the basket is replenished, eventually they will come to understand that the food will always be there; that there is more than enough food; and that they are safe, regardless of what his/her primal brain might be trying to tell them. And they will stop feeling the compulsion to eat everything (or maybe even anything) in the basket. 

If you are ever in a situation in which a child who has experienced food scarcity comes to live with you, I hope this insight into the behaviors and the tips will help you help them experience felt safety.