Community Engagement Nutrition

New course supports caregivers feeding children who’ve experienced trauma

Building trust and healthy habits, one bite at a time

By Chris Branam

Lily Joslin’s first placement as a foster parent was only for a night – but the experience made a lasting impression. 

An 8-year-old boy arrived after a traumatic removal from his home. Lily and her partner had prepared their home with their notion of “kid-friendly food.” The boy wasn’t interested in eating any of it. Lily tried a different approach. 

“We said, ‘OK, if we were to go pick up something from a fast-food restaurant, what would you like? He told us what he wanted. We brought home chicken nuggets and fries and he happily noshed on them.” 

Later, the boy started talking about a play kitchen in the living room. He said that at home, he really liked making pancakes for his family. Lily told him that they would make pancakes in the morning for breakfast. 

“He was so excited,” she says. “The next morning, we made pancakes together. He ate a huge plate of them, and he was just really happy when he left.” 

Lily, a nutrition educator with Oregon State University Extension Service in Columbia County, used that example when she taught an in-person course on trauma-informed strategies that allow caregivers the opportunity to improve nutrition and mealtimes, and create resilience in the children in their care. 

The training was offered in Columbia County in early 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic forced it to end. Now, two years later, OSU Extension has partnered with the nonprofit organization SPOON to launch “Nourished and Thriving Children,” a free, self-paced course that mirrors a toolkit SPOON created in 2018. 

SPOON is a nonprofit founded in Portland that’s dedicated to nourishing children who are vulnerable to malnutrition by empowering their caregivers. It was founded by two Portland neighbors in 2007 when they discovered the children they each had adopted from Kazakhstan suffered from preventable malnutrition. 

Kate Miller, the feeding and disability specialist at SPOON, co-instructs the course, offered through OSU’s Professional and Continuing Education unit in the Division of Extension and Engagement.  

The course contains eight learning modules that focus on the six principles of trauma-informed feeding and nutrition and how to implement them in the home environment. The course was built with foster families in mind but is appropriate for anyone who cares for or supports a child who has experienced trauma. 

The course discusses nutrition and mealtime challenges specific to children who have experienced trauma, and offers guidance in addressing these challenges using trauma-informed principles. 

For many children, their trauma might have been related to food, Kate says.  

“We want caregivers to feel empowered,” Kate says. “There’s a whole group of kids where mealtime has become a battleground with caregivers. We want to reframe mealtime so that it’s an opportunity to connect with the child and build resilience.” 

Kate’s co-instructor is Jenny Rudolph, an associate professor of practice in the OSU Extension Service Family and Community Health Program and endowed outreach coordinator for the Moore Family Center for Whole Grain Foods, Nutrition and Preventive Health in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences.  

Jenny, who serves Columbia County and the Portland metro area, has more than 10 years of experience partnering with the Oregon Department of Human Services’ (DHS) local Child Welfare Office to teach nutrition and cooking classes specifically for foster families. 

Like Lily, this work is also close to Jenny’s heart. Growing up her family fostered her four cousins who were placed in their care for many years. So, in 2019, Jenny wrote a grant to the Columbia Pacific Coordinated Care Organization (CCO) to deliver SPOON’s Nourished and Thriving toolkit in partnership with the DHS child welfare office in St. Helens. They taught four classes in 2020 before the pandemic. 

The team shifted the class to an online environment with varying degrees of success, Jenny says. They received feedback from caregivers that with so much going on, it would be better if they had a class that they could take on their own time and at their own pace. With additional funding from the Columbia Pacific CCO, they were able to develop this interactive online course to better meet the needs of foster families. 

The course features videos and advice from Oregon foster parents on topics including establishing trust, overcoming mealtime challenges, and helping children try new foods. Recipes and resources from OSU Extension’s Food Hero campaign are also featured in the course to help families learn how to prepare trauma-informed meals at home. 

“There are some really complicated food and nutrition issues with children in foster care,” Jenny says. “There can be lingering issues from a child’s background that can show up in ways around the dinner table or show up in food.  

“They may have some sensory issues going on. This course focuses on the importance of building trust and establishing positive relationships before you implement healthy eating interventions.” 

Good nutrition is essential to helping children grow, meet milestones and heal from toxic stress. But the importance of building trust outweighs what the child currently is eating, Lily says, who has fostered a second child for 2½ years. “Relationship comes first, and nutrition comes second,” she says. 

“Helping kids develop a healthy relationship with food when they’ve experienced trauma is a long game,” she says. “What I love about this course is that it trains caregivers to understand that you can’t force healthy habits down kids’ throats and expect them to stick.  

“You take it one day at a time and have things in your toolbox to help you integrate best practices little by little during the time in your care.” 

It’s OK for a child in foster care to eat fast food initially if it’s their favorite meal, she says. 

“At the very least it provides comfort for the child,” Lily says. “A meal that provides comfort for that child when they are in crisis is one of the best things you can do for them in that moment. When foster parents hear that concept, they breathe a sigh of relief. It’s a load off their shoulders.” 

This post originally appeared on OSU Extension Service’s website.