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Arts, Culture & Entertainment

U sociologist suggests looking at more personal reasons behind food choices to understand nutritional gaps

Abstract blur supermarket grocery store refrigerator shelves with fresh milk bottles and dairy products
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Food deserts are often blamed for nutritional gaps, but U sociologist Priya Fielding-Singh says other factors like the price, emotional and cultural importance of food bring a clearer picture of disparities into focus.

For many families, Thanksgiving is a time of abundance. But according to Utahns Against Hunger, more than 350,000 Utahns experience food insecurity. For them, the next meal isn’t always a sure thing. Priya Fielding-Singh is a sociologist and an assistant professor at the University of Utah. In her new book “How the Other Half Eats,” she looks at the nutritional gap between those with means and those on low incomes.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Caroline Ballard: There are two very common explanations that are offered for why lower-income and minority populations don’t have as nutritious diets as wealthier people. One is price and the other is geographic access. What do those explanations miss? 

Priya Fielding-Singh: Food deserts are actually a really poor explanation for broader diet disparities that we see across society — this assumption that if you don't live near a supermarket that you have to shop at a gas station or a convenience store where there's no produce. But what we know is that actually 90% of grocery dollars in the U.S. are spent at supermarkets.

I think if we're pitting geographic food access and food price against each other, I would say that food price is always more important. Low-income folks spend about a third of their income on food compared to wealthier folks who spend about a tenth of their income. But one thing that I noticed during my interviews was that low income moms often pointed out to me that even though they were scraping by they were trying to spend as little as they could on food — sometimes they ended up spending more than they wanted to in order to meet their kids’ requests.

CB: You open the book with a story of a mom who is struggling to pay the bills, but on one particular afternoon, she uses some of her very scarce resources to buy herself and her daughter Frappuccinos from Starbucks. What does that interaction tell us about how people relate to food?

PFS: Nyah [whose real name was changed for the book] was one of the low-income moms that I spent a lot of time with. We drove by the Starbucks, and Nyah treated herself and her daughter to two Frappuccinos, where the bill totaled $11. When I saw that number come up on the register, I was actually taken aback for a moment, because I knew just how scarce Nyah resources were and just how many other places that $11 could have gone. But as Nyah, her daughter and I got back into the car and the two of them enjoyed their Frappuccinos, I realized that that money was actually incredibly well spent.

For Nyah and for moms like her, saying no all the time to their kids' requests was actually one of the ways that they really made ends meet. And so when Nyah had a few extra bucks, one of the best things that she could do with that money was give her kids a little bit of what they wanted.

Not only are food choices not purely financially motivated, but rather food choices are also really symbolically and emotionally motivated. What we eat is about far more than just nutrition or cost or convenience. It's also about what that food makes us feel and what that food allows us to offer to our loved ones.

CB: What tools are effective in helping bridge the nutrition gap for people with food insecurity, and what systems could be changed on a large scale to reach those goals?

PFS: I think it's really important, first of all, to point out that this is a really big and complex problem that does not have easy solutions. The first thing relates to establishing some minimum standard of living that we think families in this country are entitled to. The fact that for so many low-income moms, a bag of Cheetos was one of the only things that they could give their kids on a daily basis that brought their kids joy and happiness and showed moms themselves that they were competent caregivers tells you everything you need to know about just how dire their economic situations are.

In addition to bolstering the safety net in that way, I think some of the most interesting and compelling solutions actually involve starting with children. How can we cultivate in kids a preference for healthier foods? How can we expose them to foods that will serve them over their lifetime rather than undermine their health? I think starting with the next generation is a really potentially impactful place for us to get work done.

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