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"How the Other Half Eats": Sociologist Priya Fielding-Singh on food and inequality in America

Uploaded: Nov 18, 2021
By Sara Hayden

"How the Other Half Eats: The Untold Story of Food and Inequality in America" is one of the books I've been waiting for.

Sociologist and author Priya Fielding-Singh distills complex social threads and weaves them into a singular, compelling tapestry, giving insight into different Bay Area families' experiences as they navigate what to eat. Much of this is related to access, and Fielding-Singh's work asks society to take a broader view of what exactly it means to create a society with nutritional equality.

Priya Fielding-Singh's book "How the Other Half Eats: The Untold Story of Food and Inequality in America" is certainly about food, but she argues that increasing access to it requires addressing underlying structural problems. (Image courtesy of Little Brown Spark)

"Let's reframe what access means," Fielding-Singh said in an interview. "Let's talk about it in a holistic way that takes into account people's lived experiences, their environments, their stress levels, their employment, their housing — and talk about how those things come together in impacting diet."

Access to food is not just about having a supermarket nearby, or the financial means to buy food. In fact, a lot of solutions aren't directly related to food at all. In the book, Fielding-Singh advocates for livable wages, child care support and affordable housing that free up families to dedicate more energy to food.

"These are all things that don't seem related to food, but are deeply, intimately related to food," Fielding-Singh said. "Those are some of the many family policies that I think would go a long way."

With that in mind, the book also reframes perceptions about how families across the social spectrum care for children through food and diet. "Especially in America, a country largely rooted in the idea that people get what they strive for and deserve, it can be difficult to accept that the parents of kids with 'poor' outcomes work just as hard as the parents of kids with 'good' outcomes. It doesn't seem fair," Fielding-Singh writes.

In illustrating these points and much more, Fielding-Singh focuses on four Bay Area families: All have teenagers, but their experiences differ based on income, education and ethnoracial backgrounds. Fielding-Singh's approachable and thoughtful pages give space to explore: How do we choose between a Nabisco Oreo and a Trader Joe's Joe-Joe cookie, kale and collard greens, a lentil soup and a fast-food burrito? What food makes us feel good and why? How do we handle pickiness, scarcity, abundance? How do we use food beyond survival — as a signal of status or cultural assimilation, as a demonstration of love?

Fielding-Singh's approachable synthesis of interviews and observations — carried out with parents and children in 75 families during her doctoral research at Stanford University — is an engaging primer on a critical topic. It leaves me hungry for more accounts like this, that factor in people's lived experiences in shaping policies about how to ensure people get the nutrition they need.

Diving into some of these complexities, the University of Utah Department of Family and Consumer Studies assistant professor Fielding-Singh recently joined the Peninsula Foodist in conversation about her book, now available. Pick it up in a bookstore, or order through the Hachette Book Group.

Priya Fielding-Singh is the author of "How the Other Half Eats: The Untold Story of Food and Inequality in America." The book is based on her research with 75 Bay Area families during her doctoral studies at Stanford University. (Photo courtesy of Vero Kherian)

Peninsula Foodist: I'm interested to learn more about your journey … You have such extensive expertise in the subject (of nutritional inequality). That comes through in your education, your training, your work, and it felt like there was an underlying passion just from personal experience too.

Priya Fielding-Singh: I think my interest in the topic really came from a broader long-standing interest in inequality that was seeded when I was pretty young. Growing up in Tucson, Arizona, my family decided to become a foster family. Pretty much all my middle and high school years, we fostered children from different backgrounds, many of whom had been born into poverty, had experienced different forms of traumas, resultive of being raised in really difficult circumstances.

I became really interested in understanding what the structural roots of those problems were, and how those inequalities manifested in my foster siblings' lives — even though we shared the same room, the same house for a short period of time, why we were on such different trajectories.

You know, I really came to food from an interest in inequality and an interest in health — these very stark, very consequential health disparities in the United States, a number of which stem in part from differences in diet and nutrition and the different ability of individuals in American society to secure a nutritious diet for themselves and others.

In sociology, there was definitely work on food, but very little work connecting food to diet to health. I felt like a lot of the conversation around diet, nutrition and inequality tended to be dominated by folks in the fields of public health and medicine who don't necessarily always have the on-the-ground experience, really seeing how these behaviors play out in people's lives and what food means to people. That was my hope as a sociologist: to be able to bring that into the conversation in a way that would nuance and deepen our understanding of where these dietary disparities come from and what we can actually do to reduce them.

Foodist: Thinking about all the structural inequities, it feels daunting to even start to unravel. Diet seems so key to that, and you write about "nutritional equality." What is "nutritional equality"?

Fielding-Singh: The way that I think about "nutritional equality" is that every individual, every family, has the means to eat a diet that will promote their health, instead of undermining it.

This is often talked about in terms of access. I think about it that way too, but I think about it less in a sense of being able to afford food or being able to geographically access food. I think about: How do we create a society in which every person lives a life in which eating nutritious food is easy, it's the default, it isn't something that's an uphill battle that has to be fought for, or is a privilege to which an elite few are entitled?

What that means to me is, how do we create a society where people earn enough money where they can afford the food, they live in neighborhoods where there's access to that food, and also they work hours that are reasonable so there's time to cook the food and they're treated well by their employers? So that they don't experience the stress and trauma of economic exploitation, and they have access to health care and providers that give them guidance and support in meeting a nutritious diet, they live in safe neighborhoods where their kids can run around and get physical activity. How do we create environments that are health-promoting?

To me, that's what being able to have access to nutritious foods is, and structural changes that I think are really important if we're going to have nutritional equality in this country.

Foodist: You were saying that every single one of us deserves the means to eat healthfully. You also have entire chapters on (topics like) pickiness. How can we ensure that we have access to healthful foods, and also meet individual preferences? I'm also thinking about "acculturation" and the dietary choices that might be informed by cultural contexts and cuisines — all those different variations.
Fielding-Singh: One argument of the book is that the food and beverage industry has really created a situation in which our preferences are really fundamentally shaped by their interests in profits. So you go to the grocery store, you look on your phone, you watch TV, you open a magazine and there is just so much advertising and marketing of unhealthy food that also happens to be really cheap and engineered to be really delicious.

It creates a situation where it's extremely difficult, especially for parents who are trying to teach their kids some healthy eating habits and to eat some fruits and vegetables. It's really difficult for parents to do that, because their kids are so exposed to these products that parents' desires for what their children eat become secondary. It becomes a situation where parents have to fight against the food and beverage industry to secure it.

I talk about this in the book in part in the context of dietary acculturation — that part of what it means to emigrate to this country is that your kids are going to be exposed to lots of unhealthy processed foods. It's going to happen in the supermarkets, it's also going to happen within schools where the food industry has found a way to market slightly healthier, "nutritionally," quote-unquote, approved snacks for children.

When I think of different cultural preferences, different class preferences — just different preferences around what families eat — I think the food industry has actually taken away a lot of that, because it's created an environment that's so saturated by certain types of products that it's undermined parents' ability to feed their kids the food that they grew up with, the food of their countries of origin, the old family recipes.

Getting kids to eat that becomes a challenge, rather than something that's really easily and beautifully passed on.

Foodist: How can we curb Big Food?

Fielding-Singh: I think about it on a spectrum. I don't think we're ever going to be a country where Big Food doesn't have a lot of power and a lot of reach, but I think we can do more than what we're doing.

I talk in the book about at least furiously regulating marketing to children. We know that kids don't have the ability to tell what is an advertisement and what is the truth. They're extremely impressionable … and kids' preferences matter a lot in what families eat.

I think that's something that would do a lot. It's something that other countries do already, but the U.S. has been extremely resistant too.

Foodist: With the people that you wrote about, there's a judgment that comes through: There's a double standard (in how society perceives) what affluent moms are able to provide versus lower-income moms. Can you tell me more about this judgment? How is this manifested in their lives? What can we do to change those perceptions?

Fielding-Singh: This goes to "intensive mothering" a bit, and societal definitions of what "good" mothers are.

Foodist: I had never heard of some of these terms (in the book) before, like "intensive mothering." (This ideology arose in the 1980s and 1990s as a means to redomesticate women through motherhood. As more women in North America became more educated and increasingly entered the workforce, it placed the onus of raising kids on individuals rather than community or society. "Because of this," Fielding-Singh writes, "being a good mom in the United States is an exclusionary ideal, challenging for all, attainable by few and demanding of the highest level of selflessness and devotion.")

Fielding-Singh: (laughs) That's a very sociological term.

Foodist: Having those terms defined and outlined, it was so eye-opening.

Fielding-Singh: When we picture in the U.S. what a "good" mom is, we picture Julie (in the book), someone who is affluent, who's white, who's devoted to her children in a way that manifests in her being a stay-at-home caregiver, someone who's really vigilant about what her children eat and someone who devotes a lot of time and energy to making sure her kid has a healthy diet.

Julie represents a certain type of privilege — she has all the resources at her disposal to feed her kids a healthy diet. And even Julie has a hard time. Even she struggles, and often feels like she's letting herself and her kids down and she's not living up to these societal standards. But she has all the resources to keep trying…

Nyah, a lower-income Black mom (in the book), starts at a disadvantage. With the very limited resources that she has, she knows that the food that they're getting isn't always healthy, but in the midst of incredible, long-standing scarcity and a lot of adversity that her kids were experiencing because of growing up in poverty, food was one of those things she could give her kids every single day to bring a smile to their face. And it also reassured Nyah that she was a good mom, that she could provide for them, that she was competent, that she was loving and caring.

I think it's so interesting how something that for lower-income mothers is so meaningful and powerful and a testament to their devotion to their children is pretty much always read externally as negligence, or carelessness or bad motherhood. There's such a disconnect there about what it means to mother, to raise children in such dramatically different circumstances in this country.
Foodist: Do you have some concrete examples of how that plays out? I'm thinking about the judgment (and example) … when you take your daughter in for a checkup and the nurse says, "Let's see how good of a job Mom is doing," that's tied to things like BMI charts and quantitative outcomes.

Fielding-Singh: I think (judgment) manifests for a lot of mothers in the pediatrician's office. The thing that I don't mention in the book is that even though that comment was insensitive and emblematic of the way that we think about mothers' responsibility for children's weights and health outcomes, I was still probably given the benefit of the doubt.

If my daughter's weight had turned out under or over on the growth curve, I would've felt some judgment, but I don't think under any circumstances that I would have experienced as much judgment as someone like Nyah would have.

Moms like Nyah would describe this tension with going to the pediatrician's office where you don't want your kids to be too thin, because that could could signal negligence, and you also don't want them to be overweight — but showing these health care providers, showing your caseworker, showing the person who works at the WIC office, you're trying to show that you can keep your kid fed, versus that your kid is going hungry.

Nyah always wanted to err on the side of them being fed more than less, because being fed less could be grounds for her kids being taken away.

Low-income moms, especially low-income moms of color, I'm specifically thinking of Black and Latina moms, always lived with the threat that their kids could be taken away.

That kind of judgment, that kind of real repercussion, also shapes how their kids' dietary choices are read, and how they prioritize making sure their kids have enough versus too little.

That's just an entirely different level of concerns, number of concerns and nature of concerns than higher income moms face.

Foodist: I think about one of the examples in the book where a higher income mom "flips the script" in terms of pickiness, with the Taco Bell incident (where her kid rejects fast food).

Fielding-Singh: Something that is the source of pride for a higher-income mom — that her kid threw out a fast-food burrito — is an extreme source of stress for a lower-income mom. So you see how the different resources and privileges fundamentally shape what a burrito means in the context of raising children.

I thought that was an interesting example, taking something that many parents experience, where their kids are really picky, and how that plays out for high- and lower-income moms.

Foodist: I'm thinking about the anxiety and stress for caregivers, and am curious about how it's manifested for the kids — just in terms of their relationships with their bodies and their diets, and potentially disordered eating.

Fielding-Singh: In the research for the book, I did interviews with parents and kids. The book ended up being about parents simply because I didn't have another 400 pages that I could write about kids with.

But I saw a good amount of disordered eating across the socioeconomic spectrum in my interviews with the children within these families. I also saw that the meaning that food takes on within families and what food means to mothers — kids do pick up on that.

I spoke with teenagers. They understand how eating and food works within their homes, and what parents value.

The higher-income kids very much articulated that they understood their mothers didn't want them eating unhealthy foods and they could be restricted or there were guidelines or boundaries that they had to follow.

The lower income kids … understood that there weren't as many rules … there were some for sure … but there were fewer boundaries, and there were instances where giving kids less nutritious food made a lot of sense, and kids understood that.

One thing that I try to show in the book is that treating kids to less healthy treats is not necessarily the financially unsavvy thing that it could be portrayed as.

I feel like sometimes people talk about, "Well, why can't low-income families just make a lentil soup? That's cheap and easy to cook. Why would they get something that's processed from a fast-food restaurant?"

Being poor means that at any moment, you could not have money: A debt collector could come by, you could have an emergency — and for a higher-income family an emergency of $500 is no big deal — but for a low-income family, that could take away all the money for the month, and you could go into debt.

Parents like Nyah do something that the sociologist Allison Pugh calls "windfall child-rearing," which is where they treat money like a windfall and they spend their money quickly on their children, because there might not be an opportunity to do that later.

For low-income moms, getting something for their kid was really important when money presented itself. It would show to themselves and others that they were devoted, and would give their kids whatever they had, whenever they had it.

That's helpful context within which to understand the purchase of a bag of Cheetos.

Foodist: The focus of your research was in the San Francisco Bay Area. You're now in Utah, you grew up in Arizona, and have exposure to these different places. Was there anything especially unique about the Bay Area?

Fielding-Singh: Because I was interested in nutritional inequality, the Bay Area actually seemed like a really strategic place to study, because you have the opposite ends of the pole in one region.

I make the argument in the book and I stand by it that I think this is the direction that a lot of major metropolitan areas are going. Even being in Salt Lake City, which for pretty much ever has been a pretty small town with pretty affordable housing prices, the rents and prices and housing prices are shooting up. It's one of the hottest housing markets. With that, you're also seeing increases in homelessness. So I think the Bay Area is really a trendsetter in that regard.

Studying food in the Bay Area is also interesting because there's such a rich diversity of cuisines and cultures, and the Bay Area is also the hub of many food movements. If anything, families in my study were more aware of alternative food movements, an interest in farmers markets and local foods that are spreading across the country.

The Bay Area is definitely one of the leaders in that space. I think I saw that in mostly middle, upper middle class families, in the sense that a lot of lower-income families were not participating in those movements, which is not overly surprising.

… One of my motivations for writing the book was to change the conversation about where nutritional and food inequality come from.

When I mention my research and what I'm studying to strangers, the first thing that they say is "food desert." I feel like we really need to move beyond that. They exist … But in most parts of the country that's not the primary driver of nutritional inequality.

It's so much more complex. It's so much more deeply related to and embedded in our families and in our feelings and our emotions and in the way we think about food.

Opening a supermarket in the neighborhood, that's not going to do the trick. That's not going to solve the problem.

We need to do so much more work, and a lot of it is elevating families out of poverty and bringing families into financial security.

Then I think we'll have a chance at achieving nutritional equity.

"How the Other Half Eats: The Untold Story of Food and Inequality in America" by Priya Fielding-Singh is available now. Join her in conversation on Wednesday, Dec. 8. at 18 Reasons in San Francisco. View details and register at 18Reasons.org.

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Posted by John Zussman, a resident of Portola Valley,
on Nov 22, 2021 at 7:20 pm

John Zussman is a registered user.

Thanks for this insightful interview reporting on such important work. Diving beneath our superficial understanding of food inequality opens up vistas into the way the world works (or doesn't) these days. I was particularly touched by Nyah's belief that she has to overfeed her children cheap junk food to avoid being deemed neglectful and potentially losing them. As Dr. Fielding-Singh suggests, the ability to feed one's kids healthy, nutritious food should be a right, not a privilege.

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