by Cathy Campbell, LPC
Last week when a priest at my church announced a new community program to combat hunger, I was flooded with memories of what I have observed, as a counselor, and what people have told me about being hungry. Stories of children being sent out to steal food, or to beg, because there wasn’t any food. Of four and five year olds trying to “cook” for smaller children because there was no food and no adults either. Of children going through garbage looking for food. Children who will eat food with bugs on it and think nothing of it, because it’s food. Being left at home for 2-3 days at a time with nothing to eat. Seeing their parents pawn or sell their furniture and their toys to get money for food. Being in an orphanage and having to fight other children for food.
I am a mental health professional (Licensed Professional Counselor) at a local community mental health center in northwest Arkansas. I specialize in working with families where the attachment relationship between parents and children has been damaged or does not exist because of trauma, abuse, neglect, adoption, parents in prison or at war, etc.
I think that the psychological effects of these experiences may be more devastating than the physical effects of malnutrition – although they are related because malnutrition affects brain development. The primary developmental task of young children is to develop an “attachment” with a trustworthy adult who will understand them and meet their physical and emotional needs. Children who do not develop this attachment, for whatever reason, often grow up fearful, angry, depressed, etc., and with severe problems in understanding, empathizing with, and relating to other people. They have great difficulty becoming productive members of society.
Being hungry is a survival issue. Little kids don’t know that there should be food tomorrow . . they just know their tummy hurts now, and nobody is making it better. It’s nearly impossible to attach to another person when you think your survival is threatened. So . . .. hungry and neglected children need special and intense help, food for the body along with food and love for their battered souls. This is needed to repair the break in their attachment relationship.
Then I started thinking about how to reach these children and families with any kind of organized food program. Here’s where I come up short. Some families take advantage of local church and community food programs, at least sometimes. The worst damage is already done by the time these children start school, although the schools are a valuable safety net. Many of the children I know of had at least one parent heavily involved with drugs. So these children would be under the radar until a parent is arrested, or a neighbor or relative notices and tries to help or makes a report – and that’s usually after much of the physical and psychological damage has been done.
I’ve written myself into a sad place as I follow my own thinking. But what I come to is that having enough food in the community is one thing – finding the most vulnerable and helping them get what they need is another, especially when we’re looking at infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. My conclusion, such as it is, is that this requires a community effort – awareness on the part of police, courts, Department of Human (or Social) Services, schools, churches, and ordinary citizens who observe their friends, relatives, and neighbors. Willingness, which I know is there, to provide help with compassion and without judgment. I am not a systems person or an organizer, so I applaud those of you who are doing this work. I do feel compelled to share my observations about one aspect of the effects of hunger in this community. I look forward to your responses.
This reflection by Cathy Campbell first appeared as a post in the Feed Fayetteville Facebook group.