Meeting Hunger in the Play Room

“Hunger knows no friend but its feeder” – Aristophanes

Childhood hunger is a sad reality for our country. More than 16 million children in America struggle with hunger and lack of food. Further, 15.7 million children live in poverty. This issue is unlikely to be resolved any time soon. While we may have differing views and opinions on how to resolve the larger issue of poverty in our country, assisting children in gaining access to nutritious food is something we can agree on.

With this in mind, ChildSavers would like to expand our services for child clients to include a healthy snack when they arrive for an appointment. This blog discusses the therapeutic use of snacks in treating children. There are a number of practical and therapeutic reasons to use snacks when we treat children. When a child arrives hungry, it is hard for them to focus on anything until this basic need is met. A clinician can fill an empty stomach by providing a snack to the child. This helps with the therapeutic relationship. Food is a big part of attachment and nurturing. Our clients look forward to this ritual and consistency on a weekly basis.

Snacks assist with both trauma and attachment work in clinical sessions. One of our therapists described her use of snacks:

I use them all the time to work on attachment issues with kids who have experienced neglect. It helps to build rapport as a trusted adult that can provide nurturance physically and emotionally. There are children who are always hungry and can’t focus in session until we get them a snack. I also have had good experiences when a child in crisis, it helped them to self-regulate. By focusing on getting a snack and water, it brought their heart rate down and restored a sense of calm. I have another child with autism that uses the snack as a way to converse and relate to me in the session.

Hunger Can Cause Behavioral Issues

Not surprisingly, studies show that children who regularly do not get enough to eat have significantly higher levels of behavioral, emotional, and academic problems. Further, they can also be more aggressive and anxious.

Teens that regularly do not get enough food are more likely to be suspended from school and have difficulty getting along with other kids. Lack of nutritious food impairs a child’s ability to concentrate and perform well in school. We also know that younger children (ages 0-3 years) cannot learn as much, as fast, or as well when they are hungry.

Snacks Help with Transitions

Another therapist explains the ways he is able to incorporate snacks into his work with children as follows:

Sometimes I use snacks therapeutically – making a game out of a parent and child feeding one another, using snacks to practice mindful eating, or marking a break in session between “hard stuff” and “fun stuff.”

Sometimes I use snacks as a transition tool. Taking snacks upon leaving our session can give a client a little piece of ChildSavers – a meaningful object that represents our time together.

Sometimes a snack can disrupt the routine of a parent “grilling” a child about their session in the car – they are sharing fruit snacks or cheese crackers instead. Typically, parents have told me they hear more about the session when they are sharing a snack with their child than when they are asking about the session directly.

While it may be a small step towards assisting families with food and nutrition needs, it allows us to offer one more support for families and to establish another level of connection. One small snack is actually a vehicle for our clinical work as it strengthens the therapeutic relationship. They are a great help for children who struggle with every day transitions. As another of our therapist describes it:

Snacks have been really helpful for my kids that come in hungry. I have one little guy who never eats breakfast and is so happy to have cheese crackers during session. They’ve also been really helpful with some of my little ones that have a hard time transitioning. They get to pick out their snacks, and then once they’re buckled in their car seats, they get to have their snack.

You can help us strengthen therapeutic relationships by donating healthy snacks. We would like to avoid high sugar foods and focus on better nutrition whenever possible.

Suggested snacks include individually wrapped/single serving:

  • Shelf stable fruit juice (with no added sugar)
  • Cheese crackers (Gold fish, Pirate Booty, Cheez-its)
  • Popcorn
  • Granola and breakfast fruit bars
  • Animal crackers
  • Cheese crackers with cheese filling (No peanut butter please)
  • Fruit snacks (Annie’s non-gelatin)

If you would like to help us in providing healthy snacks for our clients, have ideas for how to establish an ongoing supply or know of a group who might be able to help, please contact Amy Garmon at (804) 591-3913 or

Statistics and finding on childhood hunger were taken from:  U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population and ‘Share Our Strength: No Kid Hungry”

Mavis Mintaah (left) is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and a Certified Trauma Specialist (CTS).  Born and raised in Ghana, West Africa, Mavis moved to the United States in the year 2000.  She joined the ChildSavers Immediate Response team in 2015 and worked as a Crisis Intervention clinician proving trauma informed care to our community children.  Mavis currently works as a full time outpatient therapist here at ChildSavers. 

Jan Williamson (right) is the Clinical Supervisor for ChildSavers and has worked in mental health for over 40 years. She is a LCSW, a Family Therapist, and a Registered Play Therapist-Supervisor. Her sessions often include her Therapy Dog, Sasha who is trained specifically for working with children.

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