Food hoarding is a problem. Here is what you need to know

Having grown up with food insecurity, Kimi Ceridon and her sister see how their childhood experiences continue to leave their mark on their lives.

Ceridon looks back on how she would sneak off to her room with any extras she could come by. And now, she is protective of getting a fair portion size when sharing with someone.

And when the pandemic hit, Ceridon said she and her sister talked about how conscious they had to be not to panic and run out to stores to hoard food.

“We’ve lived in scarcity, and now here we were again living in scarcity, and even though both of us no longer had concerns of food insecurity, it was bringing up a lot of anxiety,” said Ceridon, owner of Life Love Cheese, a grazing board company in Boston.

Many people like to see a pantry full of food available for themselves and their family. But when the amount of food gets to be too much, is hidden or becomes too precious to toss when it goes bad, a person might be dealing with food hoarding, experts say.

An estimated 2% to 6% of people suffer from a hoarding disorder, according to the International OCD Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports people with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Among those disorders is food hoarding.

About 75% of those people have another mental health condition alongside hoarding, such as major depressive disorder, social anxiety disorder or generalized anxiety disorder, the foundation said.

It is natural to have an emotional relationship with food and get comfort from having it available, said Kate Daigle, licensed professional counselor and certified eating disorder specialist in Denver.

But for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, a history of food scarcity or other trauma, the desire to have a stockpile of food may become debilitating, said New York psychologist Dr. Alexis Conason.

What is food hoarding?

Food hoarding can vary depending on the access the person has to buying food, Daigle said.

For young children, it can mean hiding food from their parents or caregivers in their room or their closet — sometimes eating it, but sometimes not, she added.

“It’s just having it there as a form of emotional safety, coming from a place of feeling deprived,” Daigle said. “Not necessarily physically deprived from food, but maybe emotionally having some deprivation or scarcity mindset around food.”

For adults or children with access to money, it can mean going out and buying large quantities of food and sometimes stashing it in hiding places as well, Daigle said.

What’s so bad about hoarding food?

It is interesting to talk about food hoarding after the lockdowns of the Covid-19 pandemic, because food hoarding served a purpose in that time, Daigle said.

But for many Americans, having a basement, pantry or entire home filled with food isn’t necessary, she said.

A fixation around hoarding food can have a financial impact when a person spends all their money on food and can’t take care of other basic needs. There are also sanitary and health concerns when that food goes bad, Daigle said.

There are concerns around mental health and social relationships as well, she added. Some people engaging in food hoarding behaviors may isolate out of shame or feel more comfortable being around food versus being out in public.

Why do people hoard food?

Storing more food than we need at a given moment is in some ways strategic and common in nature, said Dr. Erin Rhinehart, professor of neuroscience at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania.

“It evolved as like insurance against famine,” she said.

Many animals have evolved mechanisms for storing food to protect their survival, she added.

“In animals, if they actually experience like a short period with no food, that behavior increases,” Rhinehart said. “It’s basically an insurance policy or a way to make sure that you’re never going to run out of food.”

Food hoarding may share underlying problems with — but is not necessarily caused by — eating disorders, Daigle said.

“It’s not about the food. It’s about the behavior,” she said. Some eating disorders have food hoarding as part of their behaviors, and the same experience may drive people to cope with both hoarding and eating disorder behaviors, she said.

Many people with these behaviors may have had significant trauma in their childhood.

“Perhaps there was a true lack of available resources financially for food for the family, and so the child might hoard what food they can,” she said. And as adults, people might continue to hoard food in fear there will be a scarcity again.

But shortages of other things children need may also lead to food hoarding, Daigle said.

“It could be where food is controlled or a child’s emotional needs are not met,” she said.

Safety and security are not guaranteed in families with addiction, physical or emotional abuse, or neglect, she said.

“That can turn into holding comfort objects, whether it’s food or other sentimental objects, to try to take care of those needs,” Daigle said.

Curiosity and compassion

It’s common for food hoarding to cause shame and drive people into isolation, so remember to approach any loved ones you think might be hoarding with curiosity and without judgment, Daigle said.

Instead of focusing on how shocking you may find the behaviors, ask about their emotional experience, she added.

If you see this behavior in yourself, know there are ways to feel better, Daigle said. The next step is to find professional support to heal any deep traumas and unmet needs so you can replace the food hoarding with healthier coping mechanisms, she added.

The professional you work with should not be a diet coach or someone who shames you over food, however. Instead, look for a licensed professional with expertise in trauma, eating disorders, OCD, anxiety and compulsive behaviors, she said.

“The key thing is how much time and space is this taking up in your life?” Conason said. “If it feels like it’s stopping you from doing things that you enjoy or into interfering with your quality of life, it’s definitely a good idea to seek out support.”

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