Food trauma, insecurity, and anxiety surrounding food is often common in foster children. Food, is a basic physiological need (see Maslow's hierarchy of needs). For this reason, a lack of food, inconsistent food provisions, or stress around food (i.e., withholding, using as punishment) causes significant brain changes and responses. Addressing these anxieties surrounding food (e.g., overeating, undereating, hoarding) can be a difficult and a long process.
What does the research say about food insecurity?
According to the government of Canada, 7% of Canadian adults live in households with food insecurity. Household food insecurity is defined as “lack of physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to meet the dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life (Food and Agriculture Organization, 2013). It can be experienced at different levels of severity, but the more severe and long lasting, the higher likelihood of negative outcomes. Studies have found household food insecurity is very stressful on children with negative implications for cognitive, language, motor skills and socio-emotional functioning.
What does food insecurity look like in foster care?
Many of the children in foster care have come from places where their nutritional needs were not met consistently - food may not have been reliably available, food restriction was used as a punishment, or conflict occurred surrounding food.
Dr. Katya Rowell has a special interest in serving fostering and adopting parents as they help their children heal from food insecurity, food trauma and more. She writes, “providing food is a powerful way to help children feel safe and cared for.”
An example from Dr. Rowell on the impact of meeting children's needs through food
Lynette, a seasoned foster mom, described a meal that made a big impact on her family. “We had a 15-year-old boy in foster care with a history of runaway episodes,” she recalls. “He was gone for about 30 hours. When he came back, we told him we’d been scared, made sure he was safe, and threw a box of mac-n-cheese on the stove to get him some comfort food. That floored him. It turns out that he’d been denied food in his prior home after his running. I think it helped him trust us more than anything else could have.”
Tips for foster parents of children experiencing anxieties surrounding food:
Focus on creating a trusting connections and working on healthy behaviours, rather than weight.
Offer balanced, tasty meals and snacks at regular intervals.
Include 1 or more snacks in unlimited quantities at meals/snacks.
Don't shame food choices or call them "junk/crap".
Ask them what they are used to eating and learn how to make it/buy it.
Offer reassurance, "there will always be enough food".
Aim for pleasant family meals - don't battle over eating certain items.
Always provide at least one food they are willing to eat.
Let them know they can spit it onto a napkin if they don't like it (may encourage them to try new foods).
Allow the child to serve themselves.
Realize this is a process, from a history of food trauma or insecurity.