Mothers overwhelmingly take the blame for their children’s health and diet. What does that mean for mothers without the resources to buy the right foods versus the mothers who can buy healthful food but never feel their choices are good enough? Sociologist Priya Fielding-Singh interviewed four San Francisco Bay families from different backgrounds to find out how and why people eat as they do. Her research shows that Americans’ dietary choices have little to do with personal discipline and, instead, mainly involve family budgets and societal pressures. Personal desires – whether to be a perfect mom or to alleviate the weight of poverty – shape how Americans eat.
- Current assumptions about eating misunderstand dietary choices in America.
- Societal pressure to be a “good mom” dictates family dietary choices.
- The food industry pushes junk food to ease mothers’ guilt.
- Gendered expectations create further frustrations for mothers trying to uphold healthy eating habits.
- Lack of time and resources often lead to unhealthy dietary compromises.
- Emotional stress and misguided blame affect diets across the income spectrum.
Current assumptions about eating misunderstand dietary choices in America.
The American diet is overwhelmingly unhealthy. The US Department of Agriculture agrees with most nutritionists that a healthy diet is made up of fresh fruits, vegetables, low fat dairy, whole grains and lean proteins. Most Americans don’t eat this way. The Americans who suffer the most from diets lacking in nutritional value are low-income families of color. They often eat too much sugar and too many processed foods and fatty meats, leading to higher rates of diabetes and heart problems, as well as earlier deaths than more affluent people.
“Do others have to lose so we can win?” (author Zadie Smith)
As the disparity between rich and the poor widens, some political figures, such as Michelle Obama, have sought to mitigate some of the causes behind this issue. However, those efforts operate on two assumptions about why some Americans eat unhealthily. First, low income families can’t afford healthier foods and second, low-income families don’t have physical access to grocery stores that sell healthy foods.
The second assumption is false. For example, The Healthy Food Financing Initiative invested more than $650 million dollars in building supermarkets in communities that lacked nearby grocery stores. Yet, making healthful food more available brought about little or no dietary changes within low income communities. After conducting copious interviews, author Priya Fielding-Singh found that geographical access was not a contributing factor to dietary choices. Most people have cars and don’t mind traveling to get the food they want.
So, perhaps price is more of a determining factor. Junk foods are delicious, addictive and cheap. They are dense in calories. Low-income families trying to make every dollar count seek foods that will fill them up for longer amounts of time. For example, Nyah Baker, a single Black mother with Type 2 diabetes, two kids and a slipped disc, is unable to work. She makes ends meet by combining government support, SNAP food-buying benefits, gig work and occasional help from her aunt.
Like most moms, Baker understands what a healthy diet should look like and makes efforts to feed foods like spinach to her daughters. Yet without a guaranteed income for buying nutritious foods, Baker often buys junk food to keep her daughters reliably full. She made efforts in the past to buy only healthy foods and during that time she actually spent less money on food. But when she has healthy food – which the local food pantry provides for free – no one in her family eats it because nobody likes it or knows how to cook it.
If access to food and the cost of food don’t play major roles in diet inequality, what shapes food choices? Why do mothers like Baker buy Hot Pockets instead of fish, broccoli and rice?
Societal pressure to be a “good mom” dictates family dietary choices.
Nyah Baker barely makes ends meet. She lacks the resources to take her kids out for fun activities, such as visiting a water park. Her lack of financial security impedes her ability to provide for her children. She constantly denies her daughters’ requests for new clothes, electronics or toys. This makes her feel guilty and leaves her wondering if she’s a terrible mother. However, she can say yes to junk food because it’s cheap. Buying her daughters powdered donuts or a bag of Doritos puts smiles on their faces and is often the only thing she can do to ease the hardship of poverty.
On the opposite end of the economic spectrum, Julia Cain, a white, affluent married mother with no financial worries, often says no to her kid’s junk food requests. However, she can say yes to most of their other requests. She can provide her children with private school, concert tickets, summer camp and consistent, healthy dietary choices.
Baker feels like a good mom for indulging her kid’s junk food cravings. Cain feels like a good mom for denying her kids the same food. They are both succumbing to what sociologist Sharon Hays calls, “intensive mothering” – providing for their children and making them happy, no matter the cost.
“Intensive mothering dooms moms to feelings of inadequacy and the sense that they never do enough — that they never are enough.”
This behavior creates a racial and economic inequality gap concerning who gets to be a good mother. Gold-standard mothering now means giving your kids every opportunity to grow and learn, buying them whatever they need to thrive and providing them with the nutritious food. By that unfair criteria, only the financially secure can afford to be good moms. If a mother like Baker takes on the pressure of such standards, she will never feel she’s good enough.
The food industry pushes junk food to ease mothers’ guilt.
Unsurprisingly, the food industry preys on mothers’ guilt. Its advertisements contend that if satisfying your child’s needs is the key to good mothering, then buying addictive food kids crave will make moms good enough. Moms across the income spectrum struggle with this message.
“If we are what we eat, then the food we put in our bodies says as much about our identities and location in the social hierarchy as it does about our health.”
Mothers with Cain’s advantages can spend time and money teaching their kids about good food versus bad. Moms like Baker can’t afford to waste food and need to keep their kids fed and feeling full. Watching her children go hungry traumatizes Baker and deepens her guilty fear of being a failed mother.
Also, many children are picky eaters. So, prosperous parents can afford to buy broccoli over and over until their kids learn to like it. Low-income parents can’t; they buy what their kids will eat.
Because many low-income Americans are people of color, food choices may also reflect racial inequalities. Americans often associate childhood obesity with being Black or Hispanic – and often blame mothers instead of scrutinizing the food industry’s practices. Media accounts of good nutrition praise moms who feed their kids foods like kale and quinoa – items associated with affluent white families – and condemn moms who feed their kids collard greens and cornbread – the cultural soul food of Black communities.
Gendered expectations create further frustrations for mothers who try to uphold healthy eating habits.
Moms bear responsibility for most housework, childcare and meals. American dads add to the frustration that moms feel when it comes to enforcing healthy eating choices. This happens because men are more likely than women to indulge in unhealthy habits, such as ignoring medical issues, consuming too much alcohol, or eating too much high-sodium food or red meat.Men often prefer pizza to salad and rely on their wives to make the family’s healthy food choices. Thus, they disclaim responsibility for maintaining their kids’ eating standards.
“The dads I met, however, didn’t need to devote themselves to feeding their kids to feel like they were good dads.”
This can infuriate a mom who spends her time trying to enforce healthy eating habits, only to have Dad undermine her efforts by taking the kids out for burgers and fries. Consider Renata Ortega, a working, middle-class mom who feels her husband, Jose – and his lack of commitment to the diet rules she tries to enforce – undermines her. Ortega says that Jose takes the kids out for fast food if she isn’t home to cook dinner. Renata must cope with a family dynamic in which she’s the only person vested in trying to make sure her children eat healthfully.
Lack of time and resources often lead to unhealthy dietary compromises.
Single mothers who work labor-intensive jobs have greater difficulty making healthy choices. For example, take Delfina Carrillo, a cashier and single mom to 15-year-old Luis. She argues that cooking cuts into the time she has to bond with her son at the end of the day.
“Its common knowledge that a lack of time is a major barrier to eating nutritionally.”
Lack of time is an issue for most working parents across economic brackets. They often face long hours and long commutes, leaving them with less time to shop for food, cook or clean. Mothers often feel they must choose between spending quality time with their kids or cooking a healthy meal. This is also true for moms who are somewhat better off, though some wealthier moms can afford to hire household help to compensate for their lack of parenting time.
When people come near the poverty line, they tend to sacrifice nutritional food choices first when cutting expenses. As of March 2020, US households carried $14.3 trillion in debt, and student loan debt rose to $1.56 trillion. College degrees provide access to better, higher paying jobs, but those jobs also put earners outside the margins for government aid, increasing their cost of living. Couples like Alvaro and Sofia Morales, college graduates and parents of three kids, fear that losing a job or having a medical emergency could push them into poverty. As Alvaro puts it, food is the first thing they cut back on in a financial crunch. When they have money, they can afford to use food as a teachable moment for healthy living. When they don’t, they eat junk food to save money.
Emotional stress and misguided blame affect diets across the income spectrum.
Low-income mothers face enormous challenges keeping their kids safe, housed and fed. The stress of financial scarcity, lack of health insurance, housing instability and unsafe living conditions weigh heavily on the minds of many impoverished mothers. To combat this, they use an emotional management technique called “downscaling.” They lower their expectations, often through social comparison, so they can view their lives with optimism.
Because safety, housing, healthcare and schooling are all givens for more affluent moms, they prioritize diet. Wealthier moms, feeling increasing pressure to be perfect, manage anxiety by “upscaling”: they constantly strive for higher standards of intensive mothering. Janae Lathrop, an employed, upper-class mom, worked long hours and had a long commute. She ordered a lot of take-out food for her family. This made her feel guilty, so she took a new job that gives her more time at home. Now, she can cook most meals, though she tends to use frozen veggies and other prepared ingredients. Many mothers like Lathrop aim to “have it all” – become a gold-standard mother, cook family meals and build a high-paying career. Their efforts to achieve that goal often run into other obstacles, such as employers who do not offer paid leave, paid childcare or flexible hours.
“As moms, we deserve to live in a society built of infinitely more empathy, appreciation and support.”
The narrative of blaming mothers will never fix these issues. The government should hold employers and corporations responsible. It should provide low-income parents with access to more food assistance that prioritizes nutritional choices over junk. Families need affordable housing and childcare to lift themselves out of poverty, buy healthy food, and cook nutritious meals. Society should give moms a break and look to policymakers, corporations, food industries and marketers to support parents’ efforts to raise healthy children.
About the Author
Priya Fielding-Singh is a sociologist at the Stanford University. She studies the societal factors that determine people’s health.
“How the Other Half Eats: The Untold Story of Food and Inequality in America” is a thought-provoking book written by Priya Fielding-Singh that delves into the intricate relationship between food, inequality, and class in America. The book offers a comprehensive analysis of the ways in which food choices and access to healthy food are influenced by socio-economic factors, exposing the stark disparities that exist in the American food system.
The book begins by highlighting the paradox of food insecurity in America, where obesity and malnutrition coexist, and the seemingly endless abundance of food does not guarantee access to healthy and nutritious options for all. Fielding-Singh argues that the conventional narrative surrounding food inequality, which focuses on individual choices and cultural differences, is inadequate and misleading. Instead, she contends that food inequality is a result of systemic issues rooted in capitalism, racism, and classism.
Fielding-Singh conducted extensive ethnographic research in a low-income community in San Diego, documenting the daily struggles of residents to access healthy food. She examines the limited options available to those living in food deserts, the high cost of healthy food, and the various ways in which the food industry perpetuates inequality. The author also explores the impact of food assistance programs, such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), and the ways in which they can both help and hinder food security.
One of the book’s most significant contributions is its critique of the dominant food system, which prioritizes profit over people’s health and well-being. Fielding-Singh argues that the industrial food system is designed to produce cheap, unhealthy food that benefits corporations rather than consumers. She highlights the disparities in food marketing, which targets low-income communities with unhealthy products, and the exploitation of immigrant and minority labor in the food industry.
The book also delves into the nuances of food culture and how it intersects with class and race. Fielding-Singh challenges the notion that certain food choices are inherent to specific cultures or communities, instead, she argues that food preferences are shaped by a complex interplay of factors, including cultural background, economic conditions, and social status.
Fielding-Singh’s analysis extends beyond the individual level, critiquing the broader societal structures that perpetuate food inequality. She discusses the role of urban planning, housing policies, and transportation systems in creating food deserts and limiting access to healthy food options. Furthermore, she highlights the ways in which the food industry is complicit in perpetuating environmental degradation, labor exploitation, and animal cruelty.
“How the Other Half Eats” is a powerful and insightful examination of the intricate relationships between food, inequality, and class in America. Fielding-Singh’s research and analysis offer a nuanced understanding of the complex factors that contribute to food inequality, challenging readers to rethink their assumptions about the availability and accessibility of healthy food. The book is a call to action, urging policymakers, activists, and individuals to address the systemic issues that perpetuate food inequality and to work towards a more just and equitable food system.
- Thorough research: Fielding-Singh’s ethnographic research provides a rich and nuanced understanding of the daily struggles of low-income communities in accessing healthy food.
- Intersectional analysis: The book effectively examines the intersections of food inequality with race, class, and other forms of oppression, offering a comprehensive perspective on the issue.
- Accessible writing style: Fielding-Singh’s writing is clear and engaging, making the book accessible to a broad audience, including those without a background in food studies or sociology.
- Limited scope: While the book provides an in-depth analysis of food inequality in San Diego, it would have benefited from a broader geographical scope to illustrate the issue’s prevalence across America.
- Lack of policy solutions: While Fielding-Singh offers critiques of existing policies and programs, the book could have provided more concrete policy recommendations for addressing food inequality.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in learning more about the social and cultural aspects of food in America. It is a valuable contribution to the literature on food studies, sociology, and public health. It is also a compelling and compassionate portrait of four American families who share their stories with honesty and courage.