By Elia Rocha
I think we can all agree that no child should go hungry and that every child is entitled to healthy, nutritious food. The prevalence of food insecurity in the United States, especially amongst children, is scandalously high. It is also well-worn territory, so I won’t go into it here – although if you do want to learn more about the consequences of child hunger and food insecurity, I encourage you to visit No Kid Hungry.
What I do want to share is what food insecurity looks like from our vantage point, here at The Play House programs.
Like most child development facilities serving low-income households, we offer fully subsidized meals and snacks. We follow USDA guidelines to ensure that we are providing plentiful, balanced, and nutritious foods. And yet, what we sometimes see when we serve meals is anxious monitoring of how much is there, who’s getting what, and will there be enough for me?
Obviously, every child has a unique history and disposition, and reacts to challenges in their own way. A while back, the preschool classroom at the Play House North had a particular mix of histories, dispositions, and reactions which bounced off each other to create real turmoil at meal times. We had some children who seemingly could not be sated, one child who hid food, and another who was so anxious that he wouldn't get enough to eat that he needed to lie down before meals to try to calm himself. For teachers, the children’s reactions triggered their own anxieties. After all, what is more primal for a caregiver than feeding their charges, and what can feel worse than not satisfying a child’s hunger?
Naturally, the whole classroom felt the tension and reacted in kind. Now, we’d had occasional acute worries around food before, but never in this concentration and to this degree. It was a difficult situation, one that prompted a fundamental change in how we dealt with meals.
What we did was limit food. I don’t mean to imply that we had an inexhaustible supply before. No, we had portion recommendations for each meal, but we always made more than was strictly needed for parents who wanted to share meals with their kids, or for families who wanted to take leftovers with them at the end of the day. And, since we served our meals family style, the idea was that kids would help themselves from communal bowls. We decided to set up a structure; two servings per child of the main menu item. Only that amount of food was presented at the table and the rest was stored elsewhere.
It may seem counter-intuitive, even ungenerous to restrict food in this way. The key is to understand that by presenting an over abundance of food we weren't satisfying children’s hunger, but instead were feeding into their anxieties. Setting up the two-serving structure and keeping the rest of the food out of sight relieved children of the burden of responsibility over how much they were going to get, and from feeling the need to compete. The structure also introduced much more predictability around meal times. Teachers could reassure children that the same thing would happen every day; each child could have two servings if they wished, each child would have access to the same quantity of food, and there would always be enough for everyone. For children with a history of trauma, establishing a predictable environment is critical to their sense of safety and security. Meal times are clearly no exception, so this new structure made a big difference.
Everyone has a personal relationship to food, which starts literally from day one. Those who have experienced food insecurity and privation know that even when they have enough to eat, fears about food can still feel like an existential threat. It is not surprising then, that these same fears cause some of our little ones to react the way they do. Even when there is enough, when it is plainly there before them, they’re still swinging.
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Various members of the Children Today staff contribute to these blog posts.