adoption, family

On the Frontlines of Food Insecurity

I heard the most ridiculous thing at a training given by the Department of Children and Families. The session was about health and safety for kids in foster care. The speaker was a registered nurse whose job it was to approve all medical treatment for the foster children in her region. Don’t even get me started on the times she described vetoing a medical doctor’s recommendation based on her shoddy anecdotal evidence.

The comments that irked me into feelings of mild violence were her views on food insecurity. “Oh that’s not really a problem. I don’t why people come to me with this. Just offer a variety of foods at dinner time.” She called this a “food tour” and opined that it always worked.

Seriously?! Ummm…no.

All of our children, to some degree, suffer from food insecurity. Because they spent large amounts of time without food, without enough food, or without appropriate nutritional fare, they have food insecurities. Two of our children don’t even feel safe unless they have a stash of non perishables in their bedrooms.

When the kids first came home, Carl couldn’t handle family meal times. His behavior escalated to what seemed like bizarre levels. We would sit down to a meal and politely pass the food around from plates in the middle of the table. Carl would grab between 3 and 6 dinner rolls and then scream at anyone else who tried to take one.

“Stop it! There will be none left!!!”

Carl would sit on his feet in a crouch with his arms protectively over his plate. No amount of cajoling or reminding got him to sit on his bottom would last for more than 30 seconds before he hopped up and perched protectively over his plate again.

His pupils would dilate and his heart rate would pick up. His voice got louder and his words were more oppositional. It was like watching someone handle being the victim of a hostage situation. Pure panic.

Inevitably the dinner stress would be too much for Carl. He would start by complaining he hated the food and would never eat it. This would progress to trying to grab all of the remaining food on the table. ALL of it. At some point after that he would throw his plate/cup/meal directly at me and run away screaming that we were starving him. Sometimes he would punch me.

At the same time, Sean would gobble huge amounts of food as if it were a race while Marcus and Mary sat turned away from the table, staring at the floor. They would not respond in any way, even if spoken to. It was as if they weren’t even there.

After everyone left, Mary would take her plate underneath the table, or to the floor, and finally eat her dinner. Marcus would eat whatever was left over when he awoke in the middle of the night.

None of it made any sense to me at the time. We did everything we could think of to manage this behavior. We put limits on the amount of ___ the kids could put on their plate at one time. We proactively switched over to paper plates and disposable plastic cutlery. My apologies to the environment but experience has literally shown me it’s better to have a plastic knife hit you in the face than a steak knife. After Carl’s outbursts he’d have to finish eating in his room. I didn’t know at the time that he felt much safer eating there.

Eventually we learned that our kiddos had a past history of stressful mealtimes. We already knew they spent a lot of time fending for themselves as toddlers and young children. Hence, Mary developed a taste for dog food and would sneak it whenever no one was watching. Apparently when bio mom was manic she’d begin cooking at 2 or 3 AM. Then she’d wake the kids up and insist they eat. Other times they existed on the Monster energy drinks and Jolly Ranchers they stole at the local corner store.

To this day, when Carl is feeling stress or anxiety it flares up. He will binge eat in the middle of the night. There is a far off, unfocused look that comes over him while he stuffs huge amounts of food into his mouth at an alarming rate. He’s often crying at the same time.

Have you ever seen a hamster stuff it’s cheeks full of food? This is sort of what it looks like. Carl will swallow without chewing. His cheeks swell to an unusual size yet still he keeps going. He stuffs more and more food into his mouth even before he swallows what’s already in there. This leads to choking and vomiting. As soon as Carl finishes puking, he immediately resumes guzzling food. Then he vomits more and eats more and so on. He chokes a lot when he gets like this because he forgets to breathe.

Last spring he suffered scratches to his esophagus because of the sharp edges of un-chewed food (think crackers or nuts.) He had also vomited so much that the acid was eroding soft tissue in his esophagus and stomach. He threw up so many times a day that eventually he was vomiting blood. The wait to see a specialist for pediatric GI took forever. We ended up in the emergency room at the children’s hospital four times in one month.

In the meantime we would wake up in the morning to find vomit, blood, and food wrappers of one kind or another all over the house. It was terrifying. This is when we got combination locks for the fridge. Our cabinets were already locked overnight to keep Mary out of the cutlery. Finally we got him in to do a series of tests, including an endoscopy.

The specialist concluded that Carl was reacting to his past, so it couldn’t be medically treated.  He asked me, completely straight-faced if we’d ever considered Cognitive Behavior Therapy. He told me that sometimes children who were traumatized need therapy. I burst out laughing. Yes, we’d been working on that for 4 years.

After the first winter together, the snow melted and revealed a surprise. Carl had buried all of his school snacks in the snow. Every day at school he would tell the teacher we refused to give him snacks. Meanwhile, he built up a stock in case he ever ran out of food again.

Carl would ask strangers for food at the store, at parks, at the lake, basically anywhere. While I stood behind him with a rescue-bag of goldfish in my hand I would hear him beg strangers desperately.  “Please,” he’d urgently whisper, ” Can I have some of that? My parents NEVER feed me. I’m starving!!!”

Once a well-meaning older lady kindly explained to me that children cannot go for long periods of time without eating. She kindly suggested that I consider snacks for the children. In response I pulled gently on Carl’s outside coat pocket. Imagine her surprise when three granola bars and a bag of almonds fell out!

Some things have helped. We developed a calm dinner routine where we take turns appreciating one person at the table for something they did that day.  Our goal was for Carl to feel safe at mealtimes. His therapist, L, helped him develop a self-talk manta. It goes, “I will have enough to eat. I will have these foods again.”

We let him keep boxes of power bars and granola  in his room. For years he slept with them in his bed. This was preferable to the chicken drumsticks and other perishables he used to hide in his pillow case!

We got frozen pizzas that Marcus could prepare and eat in the middle of the night. We stopped buying “high-value” foods that would trigger Carl into a binge. This included peanut butter, Nutella, candy of any kind and cream cheese. During the stressful spring season we padlock the fridge to prevent Carl from getting hurt while out of control at night.

Some things have never changed at all. For example, Mary literally does not know how to drink water.  If a glass is placed in front of her she will chug it as fast as possible without breaking. It doesn’t matter how much liquid you put in front of her. I tried to give her a huge water bottle once to see if it would slow her down. It didn’t. Instead she threw her head back and guzzled until I was sure she’d drown.  Instead she began choking and crying while continuing to gulp. Mary wouldn’t put the bottle down until I physically pryed it away from her mouth.

When chugging her water Mary still tilts her head as far back as she can. She also flings her left arm out straight to grab and hold onto whoever is nearest. She will clutch onto them until she is done rapidly swallowing everything in front of her. It looks exactly like a baby drinking from a bottle. Mary is stuck in this phase.

Unfortunately this also makes her vomit. Because of how unpleasant it is for her to chug liquid down and then puke, she usually refuses it entirely. She claims she is “allergic” to water and it always makes her sick. She physically cannot sip from a cup. That skill simply isn’t in her repertoire.

Eventually we learned to pour out two fingers of liquid at a time for her to drink or else we’d give her a straw. She was able to appropriately use the water fountain at school.

My point is this: food insecurity is terrible.  If a professional gives advice on this they should have some actual experience with kids exposed to starvation. Healing takes hard work and years of patience. Even then, that trauma is always with our kids to some degree. Because, really a “food tour” is NOT going to fix the problem.

**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

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25 thoughts on “On the Frontlines of Food Insecurity

  1. Wendy Spackman says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your experiences/journey through parenting your children who have trauma. We too have an adopted daughter from foster care who is considered severely traumatized. In our circles our daughter is the most traumatized child most of the professionals we work with have seen. My friends don’t understand what we go through, school is an out of body experience at times…I often feel like I am just flying through space out of control, no direction, no goal, just hurdling. Since taking custody in June of 2013, when my daughter was 22 months old, I have gained 70lbs, lost huge patches of the hair on my head, have become very unsociable and suffer from adrenal fatigue. I have 1 trauma child-who doesn’t compare (behaviors wise) to any of yours. I literally don’t know how you do what you do! You are an amazing woman, person, parent & soul. I commend you on all that you do for all of your children, your ‘never say die’ attitude and your ability to still be able to form words into such heartbreaking, yet hopefully stories. I so admire your perserverance.
    I’ve read all of your blogs, they get delivered to my email, and I am floored by every one of your entries. In case no one has told you lately or in case you doubt yourself, I just want you to know from one trauma parent to another-YOU ARE AMAXING!! Please know that and know that those kids are so lucky to have you as mommy & your husband as daddy. You are doing so much for your children.💗 Hugs.

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  2. Thank you for telling us (teaching us!). It took me a long time to understand why our 18 month old wanted to sleep with a cracker in each hand. Later, at 18, she took boxes of un perishables with her to college! At 36, she is still known for over-ordering for herself ( or her table) at a restaurant. She’s a nurse, a yoga teacher, and has culinary training! So it’s not a lack of knowledge that steers her into this pattern. These are such mild things! But I know what is happening inside her when I see this happen, and I pray for peace and security for her heart.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Davina says:

    Oh yes, my girlie is obsessed with plastic water bottles. She will chug all the water, refill, chug, refill, chug….until she pees herself. I can’t even take it to wash without her losing it. A few weeks after she first came, we went on a road trip and I set everyone up with water bottles and snacks. She chugged her water before we were even 5 mins down the road and promptly peed on the seat. I’ve learned to watch her carefully and restrict her water intake.

    She doesn’t hoard food, but she does hoard paper. She will steal the mail, school papers her teacher sends home, paper from the trash can, any paper lying around the house will get stuffed in 4 or 5 bags and stashed in her closet. I haven’t been able to figure that one out.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Beth says:

    Reading this just breaks my heart for your kids. And I get it. My older daughter didn’t have food issues but she didn’t know how to use utensils, at 10. She had never been allowed to. Despite being raised by supposedly responsible foster parents since before age 2. My younger daughter has been known to swipe cans of cat food out of the cabinet and eat them.

    I have read that people who went through starvation (as in famines or concentration camps) have to carry food with them at all times, even 60 years later, to feel safe. Food issues are so hard, and so sad.

    And on the GI specialist who suggested to you that Carl might need therapy – yeah, we had a police officer suggest to us that younger daughter needed therapy. But, he assured us, it was a HUGE good sign that she knew she needed help. Gee, thanks, officer, for that amazing insight that we have never thought of. Sigh. I remarked to someone at the time that it was like someone walking into the middle of Jerusalem and saying, “hey, Israel and Palestine, I’ve got it! What you guys need to do is talk it out! You’re welcome!”

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love your Jerusalem example! I bet the GI doc could solve that right away!! I fond it odd when professionals don’t ask questions first. “Is he in therapy?” would have been a good place to start. Hugs to you and your family!

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  5. I learn so much from you. This is an area I REALLY didn’t understand before today. My concept of food insecurity was a lot more, well, gentle and open to being soothed. I guess that’s the best way to put it. Now I see how torturous it can be to live with this sort of trauma. Blessings to you and yours.

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  7. I am delighted to have found your blog! I am a child abuse survivor whose blind and I have complex ptsd and dissociative identity disorder. How old are your kids? I agree food insecurity is a real phenominom. xox

    Liked by 1 person

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