America Has A Food Disparity Problem

16:58 minutes

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As of 2016, more than half of American children had a diet that standard nutritional recommendations would consider “poor quality.” And there are stark differences between children in wealthier and poorer households. Poor nutrition can have lifelong impacts on health, including Type 2 diabetes, heart problems, and dental cavities. But it isn’t always clear what families need to provide healthier foods for their children. One popular explanation, now debunked, was the theory of food deserts: Poorer neighborhoods just don’t have grocery stores, and families must buy their food from convenience stores and gas stations. But if more grocery stores aren’t the solution, what is? 

Sociologist Priya Fielding-Singh explores these questions in a new book, How The Other Half Eats: The Untold Story of Food and Inequality in America. Her research, the product of months of immersive time spent with families in their kitchens and as they navigated grocery stores with kids in tow, describes an alternative explanation for the socioeconomic disparity between kids’ diets. Fielding-Singh explains healthy food takes emotional and energy resources that lower-income parents must often spend in other ways. 

Guest host Roxanne Khamsi talks to Fielding-Singh about her research on family food choices, and the kinds of changes that might allow children from all backgrounds to enjoy healthier foods.

Read an excerpt from the book, How The Other Half Eats.

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Segment Guests

Priya Fielding-Singh

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.

Segment Transcript

ROXANNE KHAMSI: This is Science Friday, and I’m Roxanne Khamsi. Being a parent requires 1,000 different choices. Each of them can feel like a chance to mess up something important and fragile about your child forever. And, as if you don’t have enough on your plate already, many of those choices are about what to feed your growing child.

Now add the fact that some kids are fussy eaters, and they’re exposed to an onslaught of ads telling them to ditch that broccoli for a delicious bag of Doritos. Even harder, right? For many, a tight household budget requires weighing every food purchase against other things they could be paying for instead: a tank of gas, their electric bill, or a very small treat like a fancy coffee.

Now you might have some sense of what it’s like to be Naya, a single mom of three whose grocery habits and choices are part of the story my next guest is here to tell. Naya, like many parents, knows exactly what foods are healthy for her kids. But the realities of her life and her fixed income make it challenging for her to keep her kids away from junk food.

Here to explain more is Dr. Priya Fielding-Singh, a sociologist at the University of Utah and an author of a new book about the tough choices parents must make that affect their children’s diets, “How the Other Half Eats: The Untold Story of Food and Inequality in America.” Welcome, Priya.

PRIYA FIELDING-SINGH: Thanks so much for having me.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: So what was the moment when you decided to study the problem of food inequities in America.

PRIYA FIELDING-SINGH: I have long been interested in issues of inequality. I knew that I wanted to study what I saw as a really intimate form of inequality. Food, diet, the stuff we put in our bodies every day. Which I see both as a product of inequality in America, but also as a driver of inequality, in particular, disparities in diet-related health outcomes.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: What I found really interesting in your book was that from 2002-2012, the percentage of people in the US with an unhealthy diet actually decreased from 56 to 46%. But that the decrease hides some inequities. Can you say a bit more about that?

PRIYA FIELDING-SINGH: That’s right, if you look in the aggregate, average American diet. First of all, there have been nutritional gains. But those gains have not been shared equally by members across American society. And what we’ve seen is that, while higher-income individuals are now consuming a healthier diet than they were 20 years ago, lower-income individuals’ diets have stagnated, at times declined.

There are similar trajectories for comparing white Americans who are eating better than ever compared to Black and Mexican-Americans, who have not seen the same gains in their diets. And so this really is a story of racial and socioeconomic inequality and a gap that, if nothing else, is holding steady and looks to even be growing. So a lot of the diet disparities that we see with adults really hold for children as well.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: And the other thing that you mentioned in your book that was eye-opening to me was we often talk about food deserts, right? Which are these neighborhoods with no grocery stores. They might have a convenience store or a gas station, but no Whole Foods. And that these food deserts are a source of disparities in what people eat. But then there’s something kind of wrong with the concept of food deserts, right?

PRIYA FIELDING-SINGH: That’s right. The thing about the food desert argument is that even though food deserts are real, they exist and there are really important inequalities in access to healthy food, we’ve made some assumptions that have a face validity to them. But then when you really dig into them, they’re actually not borne out by the data. And they actually don’t make as much sense as it may seem at first glance.

So I’ll just mention one. There’s this assumption that people who live in food deserts, because they don’t live near or in walking distance of a supermarket, are forced to shop at gas stations or convenience stores where there may be limited produce. In reality 90% of grocery dollars are spent at supermarkets. And low income food desert residents are just as likely as anyone else to drive to a supermarket. In fact, also 90% of supermarket trips are made by car in this country.

So in America, a really car dominated nation, the vast majority of people actually have access to a privately-owned vehicle, and are quite willing to drive. And in fact, among the families that I met, it was the low-income families that were often most willing to drive to get their groceries. Because they wanted to go to the stores that had the most affordable food and the best deals. And so what happens when a supermarket opens in a food desert, is that people just go from spending their money at further away supermarkets to the closer supermarket. But it doesn’t actually change what they’re purchasing.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: So interesting. So I’ve become very wrapped up in this way that you’re breaking apart the myth in a way of food deserts. And part of what you’re talking about is finding these unexpected aspects of how people interact with food. And that you’ve done that, in large part, by using these ethnographic methods. So it wasn’t surveys and it wasn’t anything that involved a lot of numbers. Instead you spent a lot of time with families. Can you say a little bit more about how you used all of that time to learn about their food choices?

PRIYA FIELDING-SINGH: Absolutely. So I think we have really great data about the breadth of inequalities that we face, but we don’t have that high-quality data that goes in depth about how these inequalities are experienced. So I ended up conducting interviews with about 160 parents and children across class and race. And then from those 160, I knew that I wanted to spend intensive, embedded time within some families to really understand how what they were saying squared or not with what they were doing.

So I chose four families with whom I had conducted interviews and asked if I could spend some months just with them. Within their homes, within their cars, just following them around, seeing how they live their lives. And for me, the focus was on how does food fit into those lives? What meaning does food take on given their broader contexts?

You could imagine asking a survey question where you have a multiple choice set of answers, like how healthy the food is, how cheap the food is, how convenient the food is. But what would that really tell you about how those choices are made and how, when the fridge runs empty, priorities shift. How difficult trade offs are forced by families’ unique circumstances. It’s really hard to suss that out with what I think of as slightly more superficial measures.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: And you mentioned a moment where Naya, the woman I referred to in the introduction, buys a slightly expensive coffee for her daughter. What did that moment teach you when you observed it?

PRIYA FIELDING-SINGH: Naya was the lowest income mom that I spent time with, and Naya really lived in many ways hand-to-mouth. She was far below the poverty line. And one afternoon after driving around with Naya, she, her daughter and I drove by a Starbucks. And she and her daughter looked each other in the eye, and they pulled into the parking lot, and we went inside. And Naya ordered her daughter and her two frappuccinos, where the bill came out to about $11.

This was early on in my observations, and I was actually almost stunned by the bill because of just how deep in the hole financially Naya was. And what I learned was that spending that money that way actually made perfect sense. Given her circumstances, given the context of scarcity within which she was raising her daughter, being able to treat her daughter to something delicious and tasty and joyful amidst so much scarcity and hardship was important to Naya. And it was a way that she could emotionally nourish her daughter.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: This speaks to something that I felt as I was reading the book, which was that you were saying that there’s this symbolic value of food. So that in some scenarios, like what you were just describing, some parents might get junk food for their kids because it’s the one thing they can say yes to. Why have we overlooked this really important element in the discussion about food disparities?

PRIYA FIELDING-SINGH: Food’s symbolic and emotional meaning to us is something that all of us intuitively know about. Every one of us has experienced the comfort of a dish that reminds us of a certain person or a place or a time in our lives. All of us, at different times, eat for comfort. We eat to remember who we are, where we came from, what we believe in.

And yet despite this knowledge all of us have in our gut about the symbolic meanings, that discussion has not made its way into a lot of the research on food. And I don’t know if it is in part because there is such a focus on people’s environments and neighborhoods and these broader structures, which is something that I actually applaud and I think is really important. But what my work is trying to do is to show how those broader structures make their way into families’ psyches and their feelings.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: You write that it’s one thing for a parent to know that something like cauliflower is a healthy purchase. But that it’s another thing entirely for them to want to buy that cauliflower. To choose to spend their money on it, to have the time to know how to cook it, and to have that patience to weather the requests from their kids to get something more sugary or more salty. When you list it out like that in the book, it becomes a lot easier to understand why a parent, who might have financial stress, might not have the energy to deal with all the things that cooking a head of cauliflower might require.

PRIYA FIELDING-SINGH: Exactly. You hear these discussions of it’s cheaper and it’s quick to cook, compared to going out to get something, right? But that completely misses the point of all of the steps, all of the labor that go into preparing meals, all of the emotional work, all of the negotiations with children. Even moms who I met who had all the resources in the world still sometimes struggled to do that. And so then when you chip away at those resources, you just see how it becomes such an uphill battle that the vast majority of moms are losing.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: And you say moms, but it can be parents of either gender, will have that desire to say yes to their kids

PRIYA FIELDING-SINGH: I think it can be. But I think in American society, as much as we’ve made any gains on the gender equality front, moms still remain, in the vast majority of families, the primary caregiver and the primary food preparer. And I talk in the book about how the meaning of food is really tied to what it means in this country to be a good, caring mother. While it’s true that kids can ask both mothers and fathers, and they do ask both mothers and fathers for junk food, I really focus on the binds that this creates because of how gendered food work in America is.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Another way that you challenge the conversation we have about food in your book is that you say our definition of healthy isn’t always inclusive. For example, you write about kale, which is considered a star of the health food world, but nobody talks about collard greens. So how did families you interviewed feel about that?

PRIYA FIELDING-SINGH: This was something that a lot of mothers of color whom I interviewed were well aware of and were often struggling with. I talk in the book about how our understandings of what healthy foods are, what a healthy body is, are actually fundamentally shaped by our understandings of race and class.

One mother, Janae, who was an upper-middle class Black mom of three. And Janae spent so much time fighting back against this assumption she felt people made that she fed her kids unhealthy food, that she fed them greasy, fatty soul food. Even though Janae loved that food, and it was nourishing to her, and it reminded her of where she had come from and the recipes she had grown up with. But Janae felt like, in order for her kids to be seen as upper-middle class like they were, she also had to feed them what we understand to be white foods, like kale and avocado and almonds and yogurt.

For mothers of color, particularly Black mothers, they faced an added burden that the foods that were really dear to them, that were really core to their identities, were also deemed by society more broadly as unhealthy and unreasonable to feed children.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: So there’s a lot of challenges to face with making this conversation about food better. We started talking about food deserts and how research actually shows that there’s not a lot of benefit to kids health if you put more grocery stores in poor neighborhoods. What do you think will make a difference, if the problem is so much more nuanced and complicated than that?

PRIYA FIELDING-SINGH: I think about approaching this problem from two directions. The first is, what is the minimum standard of living that we think parents should be raising their children in? The low-income moms that I met were living so close to the bone. And I think the fact that there are families in this country where a bag of Cheetos is so symbolically meaningful to their kids. That just tells you everything that you need to know about how dire those economic conditions are that they’re living in. And no parents should be raising their child in that context.

So I think about what are certain social policies that we can put in place. Whether it’s around livable wages, or subsidizing housing so that families aren’t spending half their income on that. Because my research suggests that having stability and security can actually fundamentally change the meaning that food takes on. And make it so that junk food doesn’t become a way that parents have to buffer their kids against hardship.

But I also think this needs to be paired with addressing issues in the food system, particularly marketing to children. Aggressive marketing to children that is often focused on low income Black and Latinx children. And thinking about places where we can nourish kids, whether it’s in schools, whether that involves taking junk food out of schools, investing in school kitchens so that kids have exposure and access to healthy foods every day, whether it’s expanding that access so that fewer kids are going hungry. I actually think some of the most exciting places we can start are with kids themselves.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Thank you so much for joining me today, Priya.

PRIYA FIELDING-SINGH: Thank you so much for having me.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Dr. Priya Fielding-Singh is a sociologist at the University of Utah, and author of “How the Other Half Eats: The Untold Story of Food and Inequality in America.” You can read an excerpt of her book on our website sciencefriday.com/foodhealth.

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About Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor was a producer for Science Friday. Her days involved diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.

About Roxanne Khamsi

Roxanne Khamsi is a science writer based in Montreal, Quebec.

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