Across race, class, and city, American mothers are tasked with the towering responsibility of feeding their kids “well” and keeping them healthy. Even those who work full-time or more receive messages from a variety of media that if only they cooked from scratch, committed to family dinners, and helped their children learn to love roast chicken over pizza, then obesity, childhood diabetes, and poor food choices would be a thing of the past.
“All these images reinforce in the collective mind who women are and what they should be doing in response to caretaking,” says Joslyn Brenton, co-author, with Sarah Bowen and Sinikka Elliott, of Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won’t Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It, out today.
As they point out in their book, “[E]xperts say a lack of time is no excuse [for not cooking],” but the authors believe that when such messages inevitably prove impossible to live up to, mothers bear the brunt of blame for everything from their child’s obesity to their own food insecurity. What will take some of this pressure off moms—and bring us closer to a more just and healthy food system for all?
The authors offer these solutions: uncoupling the link between scratch cooking and “good” mothering; understanding that the meaning of food differs among families; finding collective answers for lower income families in activities such as community suppers; and making food a human right.
For five years, the women, who are sociology professors at Ithaca College, North Carolina State University, and the University of British Colombia, respectively, took a close look at the societal dynamics of food. They and a larger team of researchers interviewed 168 Black, white, Latina, and mixed-race North Carolina moms. They followed nine of them, with annual household incomes of between $0 and $100,000, for a month each as they shopped, checked in, in some cases, at the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) office for supplemental financial support, cooked, and ate with their families.
Those latter, ethnographic studies are the focus of the book. What they show is a deeply gendered, no-win existence for parents—and mothers in particular. It’s a reality those looking for cures to our country’s food woes have largely ignored, but it gets full attention here. Civil Eats recently spoke with Bowen, Brenton, and Elliott about the role inequality plays in feeding families, why they believe cooking isn’t a silver bullet, and how the ways in which parents attempt to navigate the social pressure cooker.
What particular expertise did you each bring to this project?
Sinikka Elliott: I’m a family sociologist—I spend a lot of time studying family politics. Joslyn is a medical sociologist, so she studies the topic of health from the angle of gender and family. And Sarah is a scholar who studies the way the food system works. All three of us have a real interest in understanding social inequality—what it looks like, where it comes from, what are the consequences.
What surprised you in spending time with these nine families?
Sarah Bowen: We wanted to look at all the factors that shape people’s food decisions and how that’s fundamentally tied to inequality. But we were surprised by how many people do not have a cushion; a lot of people in the book were getting food stamps, and I can’t overstate how important they were for them. Another surprise was how invested all of the families were in food. There’s this discourse that if you don’t have a lot money, you can’t afford to care about food. But all the moms in the study cared and thought about it and put a lot of work into it.
Joslyn Brenton: What really surprised me was the middle-class mothers who all wished they had more money to feed their kids. All the mothers thought they needed to protect their kids [from things like pesticides and food additives] but didn’t feel like they had enough resources to do so.
Sinikka Elliott: Parenting wasn’t even verb until 40 years ago, but now we have all these experts telling us do it this way, this is the root to happiness and to resilient children, and it’s all in parents’ laps. We’ve also seen a massive ratcheting up of time spent caring for children; in the book we talk about how mothers report having less free time than they did in the 1960s, not only because there are more demands in the workplace but also because of demands around raising children and “getting it right.” Even [Duchess of Cambridge] Kate Middleton is talking about how hard it is to be a parent.
Certain words repeat in the book: Lazy, balance, control, judgment, stigma, guilt, exhaustion. Which resonate for you in terms of how they affected these moms?
Sarah Bowen: I would say judgment, because all the mothers felt judged. [Unemployed mother of two] Tara Foley talked about using food stamps to buy groceries and using self-checkout to make sure she had enough to avoid creating scene; but even in that case, a checker was watching her closely to make sure she wasn’t stealing and also judging what was in her cart. I would also include exhaustion; moms are asked to do it all on their own with little support.
Sinikka Elliott: I’d say guilt, because that was at the nexus of it all. I’m thinking about small business owner Greely Janson and how she really wanted her six-year-old daughter to be healthy and she saw food as a root—but she still felt guilty that maybe she was alienating her daughter from [junk] food culture. It was also true for [married, middle-class mom] Marta Hernández-Boynton, who worked in the health field and talked about being up on nutrition research and going to great lengths to get her five- and 10-year-old kids excited about food—then getting into a power struggle with her oldest son over food, and bribing him, and feeling guilty about that.
Joslyn Brenton: For me, it’s balance and control. I was the one person among the three of us that did interviews with middle-class moms, and I soon began to see that balance was an illusion. It’s what every mother wanted, and they were all coming up short. They were trying to balance work with cooking healthy meals with exhaustion—and yet nobody seemed to be questioning this idea that balance was possible. They all talked like achieving it was just around the corner—with this tip and this trick and this husband on board and this good set of recipes. If balance is impossible, we need to change the system, because trying harder is not going to work. Middle class mothers, and working class and poor mothers, they were all really trying.
You push back—strongly—against the idea that more home cooking is going to make Americans healthier. What myth needs to be debunked around that?
Sarah Bowen: In the book you meet 58-year-old Patricia Washington, who’s experiencing homelessness [with her daughter and her daughter’s two children], and you see how hard it is for her to cook dinner in a hotel room with a hot plate and a microwave. During the study, lots of people didn’t have enough chairs to sit down at a table, or their stove was broken, or they didn’t have basic kitchen tools. There’s a gap between the discourse [around cooking and eating] and how hard it could look in people’s real lives.
Sinikka Elliott: One of my favorite chapters is where mom of two Melanie Richards—who also lives with her husband and mother—takes her daughter, Jade, to the WIC office for recertification, and during this visit, it’s announced that Jade is gaining weight too fast. The WIC nutrition counselor talks to Melanie about what she needs to do to make sure Jade doesn’t become fat. Melanie receives the information quietly but then in the waiting room, she starts to think about a recent checkup in which the pediatrician didn’t say anything about her daughter’s weight. She speculates about whether the scales are off at the WIC office. And she questions whether the method of assessing her daughter’s weight gain is even valid, saying kids don’t “gain [weight] evenly all the time.” At the same time, she is studying the nutrition pamphlet the counselor gave her and sharing nutritional lessons with her daughter, which we saw her doing all the time. Melanie was really invested in teaching her children about health and nutrition. So I think the chapter shows well the kinds of pressures mothers face to get feeding right, and the ways they both embrace and resist these messages.
Melanie’s also got a lot going on in her life. Her husband has a chronic illness that means he’s had to stop working. Her paycheck barely keeps the family above water. Like Melanie, the families in this book are dealing with health crises, precarious jobs, and work schedules that are ever changing, and so many other issues that are bigger than they are. So this chapter juxtaposes the dominant message that parents just need to get feeding right with the example of a mother who is trying very hard to go by the book (she breastfed both her kids, she cooks meals at home mostly from scratch, she encourages her kids to eat a range of fruits and vegetables) but is up against a lot. And this is a big part of our argument: That the messages around food and feeding children are really out of touch with the realities of many American families’ lives.
At the end of the day and the end of the book, we’ve still got health issues whether or not we relieve moms of this enormous weight of caregiving. So, instead of home-cooked family meals, what should we be focusing on?
Sarah Bowen: Research suggests that overall American diets have gotten healthier over the last 20 years—there’s been a decrease in sugar-sweetened beverages and an increase in whole grains. Consumption of fruits has increased—for rich people, not for poor people. Talking about health means we have to deal with inequality, because people share similar views about what healthy food looks like. Where it looks different is in what makes it harder for them to enact those ideals.
Joslyn Brenton: We need systemic change. We have to make food a human right. We need to make sure people have access to help; WIC, food stamps—the problem is we don’t fund them enough, and they’re not designed to make sure food-insecure people get the food they need. What if a doctor could prescribe food vouchers? We also need a living wage; this is hard for people to understand, but money for stable housing means people can cook and have enough money to cook.
Another thing resonated with me after this research that I think can work well for middle class mothers: stop caring so much. Resist the messages you’re getting that say you’re not doing enough. It’s okay to give your kid a frozen pizza on Wednesday. I’m not saying that’s the answer for all middle-class mothers, because the idea of “good” mothering being contingent upon feeding “good” meals is deep. But part of the thing we can control is saying no to some of these messages; low-income moms have figured this out from necessity.
Who do you hope will read this book?
Sinikka Elliott: I really want women especially to read it. It’s an ode to what women are doing in individual kitchens and in their lives, and it’s also a call to arms: Let’s make some noise in the streets, let’s think about collective solutions, let’s resist these foodie edicts that are coming from really privileged places that are putting a lot of pressure on us. I would love it if it stirred up some sort of collective anger.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.