How Racism Shapes Our Perception Of Healthy Food
In her new book, Priya Fielding-Singh writes about how race, culture, and media complicate what we choose to eat.
The following is an excerpt from How the Other Half Eats: The Untold Story of Food and Inequality in America by Priya Fielding-Singh.
How the Other Half Eats: The Untold Story of Food and Inequality in America
The first time I met Dana Williams, she and I chatted at one of a handful of wooden tables inside a supermarket. We sat kitty corner from each other, the smell of pastrami and pasta salad from the deli just a few feet away filling our noses. During the conversation, Dana’s thirteen- year- old daughter, Madison, kept herself entertained by touring the grocery aisles. Madison stopped by our table five times over the course of an hour with various goodies: gummies, Ritz crackers, tortilla chips, chocolate-covered pretzels, soda.
“Can I have this?” she asked her mom each time, smiling hopefully while holding the treat up with one hand. Dana explained that Madison could pick one. As her daughter walked away, Dana turned to me.
“I feel bad,” she said, letting out a heavy sigh. “But I’m a single mom. I can’t get her everything she wants.”
This was neither the first nor the last time I would watch Madison and her younger sister, Paige, beg their mom for junk food. One Wednesday evening, I met Dana at her house to join her family for a grocery run to Target. I was hanging out on the front stoop with Dana’s mom, Debra, and the two girls when Dana got home feeling exhausted, as she did most evenings. In her medical-assistant scrubs, she trudged up the driveway with her purse and a thermos of water, a tired look in her eyes. Madison and Paige, in contrast, were bursting with energy. Paige ran up to Dana and threw her pudgy arms around her mom’s waist. Dana put her hand on Paige’s back and bent over to kiss the top of her head. Madison stood up on the front steps.
“Can we go to Target now?” she asked her mom, a hand on one hip.
“Don’t I get a hello?” Dana said, feigning offense.
“Hello,” Madison said in a deadpan tone, the sides of her mouth beginning to curl slightly upward to reveal a grin.
“Hello.” Dana matched Madison’s tone. We all broke into grins.
“They’ve been asking to go all day,” Debra told her daughter, pulling a pack of cigarettes out of her jeans pocket and taking a few steps away from everyone to light one. “But I told them they had to wait till Mom got home.”
Dana nodded. I could tell from the ever-present bags under her eyes and the way she’d dragged her feet coming up the driveway that the last thing Dana wanted to do was head back out. As she often did within five minutes of getting home, Dana wanted to change out of her scrubs into yoga pants and a tank top and then plop herself down on the couch, put her feet up, flip through pictures on her phone, and catch up on the day with Debra. But the only thing Dana hated more than going back out after work was letting Madison and Paige down, so the five of us loaded ourselves into Dana’s Honda Civic.
Inside Target, families roamed brightly lit, well-stocked aisles. Dads pushed around carts filled with jumbo packs of toilet paper, and kids pulled at moms’ pant legs, begging for video games, baseball caps, and Snickers bars. As we began our stroll through the grocery department, Paige and Madison started begging Dana for what felt like everything in sight. They pointed out virtually every appetizing item they spotted: Velveeta mac and cheese. Extra-large marshmallows. Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Taco shells. If I hadn’t known they were asking for these items, I would have assumed they were giving us a tour of the supermarket or practicing reading labels.
Foods associated with Black culture—fried chicken, sweet potato pie, and biscuits—have consistently been stigmatized as inferior.
There are many ways to eat nutritiously. And yet the media generally present a relatively narrow image of a healthy diet. They do this by drawing attention away from broad food groups and focusing on the merits and faults of specific foods or nutrients. Certain items are included in the “good” and “healthy” category while others are excluded and portrayed as “bad” and “unhealthy.” These acts of inclusion and exclusion certainly have something to do with the foods’ nutritional properties, but they also have a lot to do with these foods’ cultural and racial associations and histories. Foods are classified as healthy not just because of what they are but also because of what they represent and who they have been historically produced and consumed by.
Discourses around soul food underscore this point. There’s a reason why people sing the praises of kale but not collard greens. Throughout American history, in both the nutrition community and mass media, soul food has largely been derogated rather than celebrated. Although soul food is rooted in the historical and present-day resilience and survival of Black communities across America, it has generally been regarded as unhealthy, uncivilized, and backward. Foods that are culturally white—yogurt, cottage cheese, avocado toast, almonds, tofu, and salad—are paraded as healthy and sophisticated. Foods associated with Black culture—fried chicken, sweet potato pie, and biscuits—have consistently been stigmatized as inferior.
Just as ideas about healthy foods are culturally and racially inculcated, so too are notions about who is healthy and what healthy is. For the most part, these associations unfairly position white families, white bodies, and white diets as healthier. Families of color—and bodies of color—are generally considered to be unhealthy, and their traditional diets are seen as deviant.
Many of the moms of color I met were keenly aware of the racist narratives pervading dietary discourses. These moms wrestled with and fought against such narratives on a daily basis.
Just as ideas about healthy foods are culturally and racially inculcated, so too are notions about who is healthy and what healthy is.
Over the past decade, kale has been identified by elite foodies and restaurateurs as an “it” ingredient and deemed trendy as a healthy superfood. Health gurus tout the vegetable’s nutritional punch. Restaurants feature kale salads with avocado dressing and bread crumbs. Supermarket aisles offer kale chips and kale flakes, and juice bars sell expensive kale smoothies for post–yoga workouts. Kale has become a status symbol; tote bags and sweatshirts feature phrases like Eat More Kale! And Oh Kale Yes!
But while kale has surged in popularity, that popularity has been socioeconomically and racially skewed, as kale is generally marketed toward and endorsed by upper middle class, primarily white people. Because of that, while kale may be healthy, it is seen as a wealthy white person’s food, making its appeal culturally limited and its glorification culturally alienating. While kale was attractive to Black moms like Janae because of their strong identification as high-income and well-educated members of society, some middle-class Black moms like Harmony were put off by it.
On a warm Wednesday afternoon, Harmony and I sat outside at a picnic bench. In black leggings and a gray track jacket, her brown hair pulled back in a high bun, Harmony looked like she was on her way to or from the gym. Her bright smile and resounding laugh matched her bright pink lipstick and diamond-studded bangles.
“My mother and father are from Georgia,” Harmony told me. “So growing up, we had soul food—greens, cabbages, corn bread, potato salad, short ribs, starches, always dessert, sweet potato pie, cobbler, Seven‑Up cake.”
Harmony paused. “You know, just kind of soul food, Southern comfort food.” When Harmony’s family relocated from the South to the West Coast, her mom continued cooking those dishes, which were always eaten at lively and convivial family dinners.
Harmony mentioned kale a few times during our conversation, explaining that it was not a vegetable she would put in her shopping cart or one she’d order at a restaurant. To Harmony, kale was a skinny white woman’s food—not hers.
Priya Fielding-Singh is an assistant professor of Family and Consumer Science at the University of Utah, and author of How the Other Half Eats: The Untold Story of Food and Inequality in America (Little Brown, 2021). She’s based in Salt Lake City, Utah.