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Bridget Siljander is no longer experiencing food scarcity, but she's still haunted by the years when she didn't have enough to eat.

"I have trauma around this because I know what it's like to be hungry all the time," said Siljander, of Minneapolis. "It left a lasting impact. I still feel like the worst-case scenario could happen again."

Siljander, who worked low-wage jobs when she was single and as a young mother, had to prioritize paying rent over grocery bills. Even when she was able to get food shelf donations and access to SNAP, the federal food stamp program, she filled up on cheap, accessible food like popcorn and potatoes.

When COVID-19 hit, she was once again gripped by old fears. Though she could afford to buy food, she worried that supply-chain bottlenecks would create shortages.

"When everything was so chaotic, it put me back into survival mode," she said. "I hoarded food and felt like I needed to load up. I would binge-eat because I might not have the chance to get enough."

Ten months into the employment and economic plunge created by the pandemic, the need for food is still surging. There are more Minnesota families in line at the state's 350 food pantries now than during the 2008 recession.

According to Feeding America, the nation's largest anti-hunger organization, one in six Americans now needs help to get enough to eat. As meal programs at schools and day care programs have become unreliable, the number of hungry children has jumped dramatically; food insecurity in households with kids has more than tripled since the virus arrived.

Some mental health providers caution that the food shortages could set the stage for a spike in dangerous behaviors related to eating. There's also concern that an unhealthy preoccupation with food will strike a wider and more diverse group.

"There's a stereotype that eating disorders are a problem for middle-class thin white girls and young women. That has shaped the research and the resources available," said Carolyn Black Becker, a psychology professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. "The field has had a big blind spot about the intersection of eating disorders and poverty."

Becker had studied disordered eating in sororities, but shifted her investigations to an ethnically diverse, low-income group that relied on food shelves.

In 2017, she co-authored the first major study to examine eating behaviors in adults experiencing food insecurity, which the government defines as those who are uncertain or unable to get enough food for everyone in their household because of inadequate funds.

Becker's findings showed that the most deprived participants — mothers who consumed less to make sure their children got enough to eat — were the most prone to significant overeating when they had access to adequate food.

"When the food supply loosens up, they lose control," she said. "Not eating when you have food, so the kids can have it, creates a cognitive load that sets you up for trouble."

Tweens, teens vulnerable

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, binge eating is the most common eating disorder.

The feast-or-famine cycle that accompanies an uncertain food supply worries Katie Loth, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School who researches eating disorders in children and adolescents.

"We're concerned about their habit formation while we're in the midst of a natural experiment brought on by the pandemic. Many families are experiencing food insecurity for the first time," she said. "We don't know the difference between temporary versus chronic food insecurity, but we suspect the longer they [children and adolescents] are exposed, the more their eating patterns will be disrupted."

Loth notes that even in the best of times, many tweens and teens are particularly sensitive to messages about food and their bodies. They are living in what professionals term a "window of vulnerability," when comments or teasing about their size, shape or appetite can lead to food restriction that sets up problems and pathology for some.

"We've asked parents to act as a buffer from societal messages and expectations," Loth said. "Now in families where there isn't enough to eat, parents are trying to buffer that. But it's something that's hard to hide from kids."

Parents as models

Experts say maintaining consistency at mealtimes, even when circumstances change, is protective for all members of the family.

"Don't deprive yourself as an adult. When a parent isn't eating, that sends a message to kids that's not helpful. It can lead them to hide and hoard food. We all need regular fuel to keep going," said Heather Gallivan, clinical director at Melrose Center, a Twin Cities treatment facility for eating disorders.

Gallivan urges parents to seek help in accessing federal benefits and community resources like food banks to ensure there is enough healthy food in the fridge.

"Parents shouldn't lie or make it seem like there are no challenges. They can say, 'Yes, things are difficult right now, we're doing our best and here's what we're doing,' " she said. "How parents conduct themselves is powerful to their children."

Even parents who are not struggling with food insecurity themselves are raising families in an environment where persistent hunger is now omnipresent; children may worry about friends who rely on school meals, hear about the need for food drives or see news footage of cars lined up for donated supplies.

"Depending on the age of the child, this is a topic for education. Parents can explain, here's how we can get involved to make a difference," said Gallivan. "The fact is, we don't know how long this could go on or how bad it will get. None of us could have imagined this."

Siljander is now one semester away from completing her master's degree at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

Her experience has influenced her career goals; she wants to work to reform systems and policies for the underserved and people with disabilities.

Her advocacy work leaves her alarmed for people who are in the precarious situation she was once in.

"Fear makes people irrational. Coming from a place of deprivation doesn't bring out the best in anyone," she warned. "We need more reassurance, from the government, from the community, that everyone will be covered."

Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.