Author Talks: Food and inequality in America

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Raju Narisetti chats with sociologist Priya Fielding-Singh, assistant professor in the Department of Family and Consumer Studies at the University of Utah. In her book, How the Other Half Eats: The Untold Story of Food and Inequality in America (Little, Brown Spark, November 2021), Fielding-Singh brings us into the kitchens of four families in the Bay Area to illuminate dietary differences along class lines and nutritional disparities in America. An edited version of their conversation follows.

Why did you write this book?

I was motivated to write this book for two reasons. The first is that we have this wealth of epidemiological research showing that we have widespread inequalities in nutrition in the United States that follow a socioeconomic and a racial/ethnic pattern. We know that these disparities matter because of how tremendously impactful our diets are to our health. What we eat drives a number of diet-related diseases, from heart disease to certain types of cancers or stroke. Widespread disparities in nutrition mean that we have this one factor that is helping to drive health disparities on a really broad level.

The second motivation for the book was that, despite this knowledge of how important and broad these disparities are, our explanations for what is driving these disparities have really fallen short. People are most familiar with the food-desert argument. The argument suggests that in some neighborhoods, typically low-income communities of color, there is a dearth of supermarkets where you can access fresh produce, and if it’s geographically difficult to access fresh foods, then it’s also going to be harder to eat healthy. That is what is causing these dietary differences across race and class. This argument has gained a lot of traction over the years, but it’s proven to be very limited in explanatory power.

My motivation for writing the book was this: If we don’t think that food access is actually the primary driver of these inequalities, then what else is going on? A lot of work that looks at food is based on very quantitative research: surveying people or doing public-health interventions. I noticed that there was a lack of work that involved just talking to people to understand how they made choices about food and how their broader environments shaped the decisions and trade-offs that they had to make around food and dietary choices. I wanted to do research that centered on people and their experiences. I wanted to talk to people. I wanted to observe people. I wanted to use data to understand how people were making tough dietary decisions.

Why did you choose to focus on the Bay Area?

I chose to do my research in the Bay Area because it’s a place that is known for inequality in the US. While the juxtaposition of affluence and poverty in the Bay Area is quite extreme, it’s also emblematic of what’s happening across the country. I think about the Bay Area as more of a trendsetter than an outlier because things that have happened in the Bay Area—increasing residential segregation, a hollowing of the middle class, increasing financial hardship among the poor—are things that we’re seeing across America and across American cities. While the families in my research and in my book all lived in the Bay Area, they actually tell a very American story.

When food is love

How did food end up largely defining what makes a ‘good mother’ in America?

When I set out on this research, I knew that I wanted to study how families ate. But I didn’t know I was going to end up studying how food decisions within families are intimately tied to beliefs about good motherhood and about what it means to feed and to nourish children across society. In the book, I talk about a term that sociologists use called “the ideology of an intensive mothering.” It refers to a set of widely held and deeply ingrained beliefs that we have in our society about what makes women good mothers.

In American society, good moms are children’s primary caregivers. Mothers are defined as “good” if they put their children first, if they engage in intensive labor to bring about positive outcomes for their kids, if they listen to experts, and if they self-sacrifice for their children’s well-being. These beliefs about what makes women good mothers are very difficult to live up to. They are largely unattainable for the vast majority of moms in society. But research shows that even though they’re largely out of reach, they’re also widely subscribed to.

A lot of moms in the US want to be intensive mothers. In the book, I talk about how feeding children is really one of the core, quintessential tasks of intensive mothering. There is nothing more central to being a mom than nourishing one’s children. That begins in utero with growing a human life. That continues when a baby comes. Mothers often provide milk for that child. That nurturing continues through kids’ lives.

The choices that moms make about what their children eat are fundamentally related to how they’re trying to prove to themselves and to society that they are good, loving caregivers. But what I show in the book is that the circumstances within which mothers are raising their children—whether they’re bringing up their kids in contexts of poverty or affluence—fundamentally shape exactly how moms use food to show their maternal worth.

What is windfall child-rearing’?

Windfall child-rearing is a term coined by one of my favorite sociologists, Allison Pugh. It refers to the way that low-income parents think about spending money on their children. This is really intimately related to how they think about spending money on food for their children. When you are raising your child in a context of not only extreme financial scarcity but also financial instability, that means that you can never count on money always being around.

The low-income moms that I spent time with were not only living really close to the bone, but they were also never sure how much money they were going to have on a day-to-day basis. There was always some debt collector coming by to pick up money. There was a friend asking for money. There was rent that needed to be paid, gas that needed to be put in the car. For these parents who were often making just about the minimum wage, that money went really fast.

In that situation where you’re not sure if you’ll have money the next day, the most rational thing to do today is to spend that money to give your children the things that they want. Because if you don’t do that today, you might not be able to do that for weeks. When low-income moms had $2 or $3, they would often give it to their children and let them buy a bag of chips or a can of soda. Even though they knew that was not the most nutritious choice for their children, it was something that they could give them. It was something that brought a smile to their children’s faces. It also brought to moms themselves a sense that they were good, competent caregivers—the kind of caregivers who could provide for their children even amid extreme scarcity.

Windfall child-rearing from the outside can look like frivolous spending. But the fact of the matter is that low-income moms know you can never count on money today being money tomorrow. When one of the most important things as a mom is being able to provide for children, one of the smartest things you can do is make sure that when you do have money in your pocket, your kids get some of what they want.

An easy target

What was the role of ‘big food’ in your research?

No family that I met—from the families living in their cars to the families who are living in multimillion-dollar mansions—escaped the grasp of big food. Every single one of those families, when they stepped into the supermarket, especially with their child, were confronted with incredible amounts of marketing of cheap, processed foods that were engineered to be delicious; marketing that was targeted toward mothers and children. No family that I met was consuming a diet free of processed foods.

We have this misguided assumption that these processed foods are reserved for low-income families in our society and that wealthier families are eating just fresh fruits and vegetables. That’s absolutely not true. What’s also not true is that it’s only low-income kids who are eating junk food. All the high-income kids that I met in my study were also begging their parents for that food. Now, maybe they had learned that they should beg their parents for the Whole Foods version of that junk food. But they were still asking for chips, candy, and sugar-sweetened beverages. So those requests are something that moms across society have to navigate and try to balance against what they would like their children to be eating.

The food industry has really marketed this idea that they’re helping moms and families because they’re creating products that children like and will eat. But the idea that kids should get to choose what gets eaten in families is actually a pretty recent phenomenon. For years, parents decided what went on children’s plates. Big food has really created this idea that we should have separate foods for adults and children. When you walk into a supermarket and see a box of sugary cereal, you can see that it’s marketed to kids because there’s an emphasis on how chocolaty it is, and it’s also marketed to moms because it mentions how many whole grains are in there. They’re also really trying to solve the issue for mothers of not having enough time by using the fact that their kids want to eat certain foods.

I make the argument that a lot of this marketing makes moms’ lives harder because it is so desirable to children. Children nag their parents for these foods. It puts parents, but moms in particular, in a situation where they’re trying to fend off those requests. They don’t have as much agency as they would otherwise to choose what gets served for dinner.

How do social factors impact which foods are regarded as ‘healthy’ in American society?

In our society, we have shared understandings of what healthy food is, what a healthy body is, and what a healthy person is. Those understandings are fundamentally shaped by our beliefs about race, ethnicity, and culture. I write about how whole categories of food have been derogated as unhealthy, as deviant, as comfort food in ways that are completely separate from those foods’ nutritional value.

I bring up the instance of kale and collard greens because kale is this glorified food, a superfood that everyone wants to eat. It’s on so many menus. They have kale chips. There are sweatshirts that have the word “kale” on it. It’s no surprise that kale is a glorified vegetable, while collard greens, a vegetable that has long been associated with and prepared by the Black community in America, is nowhere near that conversation, even though kale and collard greens are pretty comparable nutritionally.

What gives you hope about achieving nutritional equity?

Despite everything, I do still have a lot of hope. I think we’re going to work our way out of this large and complex problem by working different angles in tandem. I talk in the book about how, on a basic level, we need safety-net benefits that ensure parents are not raising their children in situations of extreme poverty. In this country, with all the wealth that we have and with all the opportunities that there should be, it’s completely unacceptable that some moms are raising their children in such economically dire circumstances that a bag of chips is the only thing that they have to offer their child to bring them joy.

At a baseline level, we need to think about what should be the minimum standard of living for any family. I would argue that the minimum standards we have now are way too low, on principle. From a nutritional angle, they’re far below where they need to be because we need to ensure that families are in a position where they have the financial stability and security to make the food choices that are actually aligned with their values rather than having to make really difficult trade-offs to buffer their kids against hardship by using junk food to emotionally nourish them. But I don’t think that just those kinds of policies are going to be effective. They need to be paired with regulating marketing to children, with changes to the actual food system so that processed, unhealthy, engineered foods are not the default for kids.

The places where I see hope are in schools and in places where children spend their time. In this country, we don’t necessarily have—at least at this moment—the political will to regulate marketing of food on a wide scale. But every so often, we do gather the political will to protect children. I think changes to the food system that protect children are central to fixing nutritional inequality. Something that happened during the pandemic that was considered completely politically unfeasible for years was instituting universal school meals, ensuring that every kid in this country had access to two meals a day. For years we couldn’t even talk about that. But the pandemic brought about a situation where that became possible.

What I try to remember is that change doesn’t always happen in a linear fashion. It can happen in spurts and bits. From my perspective, we need to know what we’re striving for. We need to be ready when those political opportunities open up for us to pass really important policies that can change the food environment for children.

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