The boy was small and wiry, his dirty-blond hair was close cropped, and he had a sprinkle of freckles across his nose. Long, lush lashes framed large brown eyes that had seen too much in his five years of life.
He was sitting in the principal’s office, and it was clear he was confused why he wasn’t getting on the bus like his schoolmates. He had a furrow between his eyebrows, and he chewed on a thumbnail that was already raw.
I studied him for a moment as I waited to speak to the school’s secretary, to explain who I was and why I had arrived to pick this child up. I prayed that I would be able to figure out how to handle this tricky situation with the least amount of damage to him.
Eventually, he noticed me, studying my face blankly, until recognition dawned and the dimple in his right cheek popped as a lopsided grin lit his face up. He jumped up, crossed the room and hugged me. He was overjoyed to learn he was going to “visit” our home for a couple of days. He had no way of knowing he would never return to the place he had always known as “home”, nor that I would be the one to deliver that painful news.
Clad in worn out clothes, underwear too small and shoes too big, the first order of the day was to purchase him — everything. Clothes, toiletries, a few toys, books and booster seat for the car.
The things every child needs. We went to Walmart and he helped me select everything. Reluctantly at first, as though he expected me to tell him everything he wanted, he couldn’t have. As items were tossed into the cart he seemed to relax and show more interest.
Underwear, t-shirts, pajamas, shorts, shoes, and socks. A trip through the toy aisles, he was elated to select some matchbox cars, a box of crayons, a coloring book, and a bedtime book. Shampoo, toothpaste; excitement over the Paw Patrol toothbrush, which was his to keep. A sharpie to write his name on everything.
We went through the grocery aisles, milk, yogurt, cheese, graham crackers, pot pies, raisins, carrots, apples, bananas, and cereal. Everything was “yummy”, and it was all “his favorite”.
That night, he consumed everything put in front of him. Spaghetti, meatballs, salad, broccoli. He smacked his lips over a bowl of cherry Jell-O. Even as he ate until he was almost in a stupor, he asked about the next meal. What we would be having, could he see the food, what time would we eat again. Could he have any snacks, where were they, and could he see them?
He repeated this after every meal and snack. He anxiously asked about food even as he drifted off to sleep with a bag of orange segments next to his bed “just in case”, it helped him sleep.
As the week progressed, more details about his abuse and neglect came out. All was carefully documented, bruises were measured and photographed, stories recorded, scars and behavior noted. The bruises made me furious, telling a story of awful abuse, their vivid purple, black, and yellow patterns standing witness to what he told us. I wanted to hunt down the woman who had done these things to this child and do terrible things to her in retaliation.
It was the stories about the food being withheld because he had “been bad” that broke my heart. Bedwetting, asking for a snack, putting shoes on the wrong feet — all came with a penalty resulting in a hungry little boy.
The need to see food is a common one in children who often go hungry. They need reassurance it is actually within their reach, and it will be available to them. Soon. He struggled with this the entire time he stayed with us. I found a stash of food items under his bed.
He would tuck cheese slices in his underwear, and packages of ramen noodles under his pillow. He would stand in the kitchen and gently touch the fruit in the bowl on the counter. I caught him eating a raw hot dog one time, and cat food another. Each time he flinched as though he was bracing for an expected blow. Each time, I explained, there was plenty of food in the house and he could eat his fill.
By the time the case worker came for him, his face had lost some of that lean and hungry look, he had gained a few pounds and he was no longer hiding food under his clothes. As we packed up his belongings, I put in a box of his favorite cereal and a box of granola bars. He seemed relieved to have these resources.
His story is in some ways not unlike hundreds of other children. Children who come home to empty cupboards and fridges. Who go to bed at night with hunger gnawing on their insides, they try to ease that emptiness by drinking water to stop their bellies from aching. It doesn’t work.
Food, particularly nutritious food is so important for children. It impacts their ability to grow strong healthy muscles, bones, connective tissues, brain cells, neurotransmitters and stronger immunity. Lack of this can result in lower IQ’s, failure to thrive and developmental disabilities.
Many of you are aware, our son is adopted. He is a healthy little guy, who is developing normally and keeps us on our toes. What you may not be aware of, is that he was not an only child. He has seven older siblings of which we are aware.
His brother was being fed a mixture of soda pop and dried milk as a substitute for formula. Older siblings had diets of soda pop, hot dogs, potato chips and Fruit Loops. Stuff which would fill their bellies but created such a vacancy of nutritional building blocks that they all have developmental disabilities.
While I cannot say that was the sole reason for their delays, I can say with confidence when a child is “failure to thrive” because of nutritional need and neglect, it will have deep and long-lasting effects developmentally, which will impact their ability to be productive adults.
We need to work together as a community to ensure food resources are available to the neediest of our citizens. Our local food pantries can purchase food at a better discount than we can, but donations of baby food and formula are welcomed by parents who don’t have quite enough to make it to the end of the month.
We need to make certain schools who have food pantries or backpack programs have enough support and volunteers to make certain there are enough resources to ensure children have adequate nutritious food in their system to be able to concentrate while in school and to make it through the weekend.
I encourage you to reach out to the local schools, after care programs or shelters about how you can help our children to be able to have access to nutritionally dense items, instead of the “food like items” with empty calories from carbohydrates and fat content but no vitamins or minerals. This “fake food” contributes to childhood obesity, diabesity and high blood pressure in our youth.
Options to consider is to work with local food pantries to ensure there is at least one night a week with extended hours or in outreaching areas. Parents who work, then pick up children, or drive a longer distance are often unable to reach food pantries before they close.
Older generations who are raising grandchildren are often unaware of resources available and are often not connected to social media. Flyers at gas stations, churches, dollar stores, and doctor offices are useful, as are blessing boxes installed and maintained throughout residential communities when they are filled with healthful, non-perishable food items, which do not require additional fresh ingredients.
As we prepare for the for our annual day of Thanksgiving, we need to take steps to make certain everyone has a place at the table.
Written and submitted by Sarah Roush for The Circleville Herald. The views of this column may not necessarily reflect that of the newspaper.