We’ve had a few experiences with children being fed excessive amounts of junk food on visits. We had a one year old who was fed ice cream, french fries, and soda during visits and would occasionally throw up afterwards. We also picked up an infant from a visit who had a sippy cup of Kool-Aid lodged next to pacifiers and receiving blankets in the bottom of the diaper bag. It’s not at all an uncommon occurrence for bio parents to load their kids up with treats at visits, so what is the psychology behind it and what, if anything, can we as foster parents do to help?
The first and greatest factor is the link between poverty and poor nutrition. We hear the root of the issue is that healthy food is more expensive, but there are quite a few other components from low-income neighbors having less full service grocery stores, farmer’s markets, and fresh produce to a cycle of food deprivation when finances are tight and overeating when the money comes in. (frac.org) Low-income families face higher levels of stress and depression, and as anyone who has binged on rom coms with a tub of Ben & Jerry’s after a break up knows, nutrition takes a back seat to mental health. We also see that low-income children have less access to physical activity. Community parks in low-income areas have fewer natural resources, higher traffic and crime, and unsafe playground equipment. Children are less likely to be involved in sports due to the costs involved, and low-income schools spend less time for recess and physical education classes.
We already know that children in the system are “disproportionately drawn from families living in poverty.” (ncbi.gov) This means that at some point in your foster parenting experience, you’ll be sharing parental duties with families who have been shaped by poverty. There are a few prominent theories on how poverty affects parenting, including the culture of poverty theory, poor environment (neighborhood factors), and stress theory. (Relationship Between Parenting and Poverty) It can be learned behavior passed down through generations or the influence of stress and maternal depression on children. If we find truth in the culture of poverty theory, then we’re up against patterns of behavior and beliefs as far as nutrition is concerned. Which brings me to my next point.
We want the comfort foods of our childhood. Remember when Honey Boo Boo gave us the recipe for “Sketti,” a family recipe Mama June had been raised on? It consisted of three ingredient: noodles, ketchup, and butter. While most Americans looked on in disgust when the episode aired, this meal makes a certain sense. Low-income families are less likely to cook with herbs and spices because of cost and accessibility, and they are less likely to have access to costly cooking equipment, such as an oven. And Sketti can be prepared using only a microwave. Besides all that, it’s familiar. It’s comforting. It’s a taste of home. It’s kind of like Ma’s secret recipe for soup that she whips up on cold winter days… or it would be if Ma’s secret recipe was a couple packages of Ramen Noodles heated up in the microwave.
Lastly, parents want a sense of normalcy, and they want to love on their kids. I usually don’t mind when bio parents flex their parenting muscles at visits. They’ve lost their ability to make the every day parenting decisions for their kids and that loss of control has to be devastating. They don’t have the daily opportunity to show their kids they love them, so they buy them presents and fill them up with sweets. I might do the same thing if I were in that situation.
So what can we do about it?
A little bit of junk food here and there isn’t going to do a whole lot of damage, but it becomes a problem when kids are throwing up after every visit. To counteract a junk food overdose, you can pack healthy snacks for the visit. For an older child, I like packing something for the whole family (whoever is at the visit). This could be a Ziplock of fruit, package of Goldfish, or bunch of bananas. Aside from food, it seems like sugary drinks or soda has been the main culprit for upset stomachs after visits. I’ve packed a couple bottles of water or juice boxes before. For infants, I’ve started including the baby foods we’ve already introduced along with a note of what foods we’ve tried.
If you have a good relationship with the parents, you can always gently mention how the treats affect the kids after visits and suggest alternatives. “Little Johnny had an upset stomach after the ice cream last week, but he’s been really liking carrot sticks lately… and oh look, I just happen to have some in my purse…” Of course if it becomes a pattern, talk to your caseworker. It can be frustrating, but knowledge is power. Respectful education goes a long way.