The Inequity of Hunger: An Interview with Priya Fielding-Singh | Civil Eats

The Inequity of Hunger: An Interview with Priya Fielding-Singh

In her new book, the sociologist talks about how nourishing children has become “an anxiety-provoking and high-stakes endeavor” and positions food access as part of a larger constellation of hardship. 

Priya Fielding-Singh and the cover of

Often missing from the public debate over diets, hunger, food security, and food access is a real, on-the-ground understanding of how people make the food decisions they do—whether those decisions are driven by health concerns, financial concerns, emotional needs, or other factors.

In How the Other Half Eats: The Untold Story of Food and Inequality in America, sociologist Priya Fielding-Singh gives the debates around food access some much-needed grounding.

Fielding-Singh began working on the book in 2013 as part of her Ph.D. research at Stanford University, where she conducted in-depth interviews with 75 Bay Area families that spanned a broad range of races, family types, socioeconomic status, and more.

“I would open my interviews by explaining that I wasn’t a nutritionist, I was a sociologist, and I was interested in how people thought about, felt about, and made choices about food,” Fielding-Singh explained. “The actual contents of families’ diets was not what mattered to me—what mattered to me was understanding those things honestly and accurately.”

From there, Fielding-Singh arranged to spend long stretches of time with four families—two families in lower-income households, one middle-level income family, and one high-income family—over the course of five months. (The four families all have teenaged children; two were led by single mothers, and two were heterosexual married couples, though the mothers were the primary food decision-makers.)

Her observation times “weren’t planned at all around food,” she said. “They were intended to just observe daily life, to be a part of any number of things that families were doing—and food played a big role, but I would never just show up for a supermarket trip or a mealtime.”

“Moms showed me that access to healthy food is about more than geography and finances.”

What she found, and what gives How the Other Half Eats its strength, is the complexity and nuanced decision-making that goes into feeding children—and parents. As she writes toward the end of the book:

Moms showed me that access to healthy food is about more than geography and finances. [It] means being able to live a life with resources and supports that make a nutritious diet the default, not the exception. [It] means not having to fight, to struggle, to eat the food you want and deserve. It is one thing to be able to find and afford a head of cauliflower. But it is another to want to buy that cauliflower, to choose to spend one’s money on that cauliflower (at the expense of other purchases), to have the time and tradition to cook that cauliflower, and to possess the patience to weather one’s child’s complaints and pleas for macaroni and cheese and soldier on to feed that cauliflower to one’s child. Only a handful of parents I met had all of those things. The vast majority didn’t.

Civil Eats recently spoke with Priya Fielding-Singh about the complexities of food access and hunger, and how to address them.

Although this book is centered on food, it also necessarily focuses on class, race, geography, and economics. What did you learn from about how central food and diets were to families?

The book is in many ways about how inequality manifests in food choices, and in constraints and challenges, around feeding. But it’s a book about a much broader set of hardships and societal inequities. And food is really the lens through which to examine those.

Almost every parent I spent time with really did care about their child eating a healthy diet. There’s often this misconception when we talk about diet disparities, that low-income parents either don’t care or don’t know what’s healthy for their children. And I just can’t overstate how false that is.

Pretty much every mother I spoke with told me they didn’t really want their child drinking soda, they knew that Cheetos were not healthy, they knew that fruits and vegetables were the best choices. As much as there were fine-grained differences in how mothers thought about what makes a healthy meal or a healthy diet, there was more consensus and more commonality than anything. One thing I hope comes through in the book is that it’s not easy for anyone. There’s so much information, judgment, and confusion. There are time constraints; and, especially for low-income families, financial constraints.

Everybody you observed felt like they were doing the best they could, and yet they also all still felt like they were falling short of whatever ideal they had. What does that say about what we tell parents about food?

I use this very sociological concept called the ideology of intensive mothering, which is this unreasonably high and unattainable standard of motherhood in the U.S. We think of good moms as self-sacrificing, child-oriented, and engaging in labor-intensive, expert-guided parenting. It’s an extremely exclusionary ideal—only the highest-income mothers can even come close to it. In a society where there are no structural supports for caregiving, where mothers and families have very little assistance, intensive mothering sets mothers up to constantly feel like they’re falling short.

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Food is a great lens to look at that through, because nourishing children has always been a core part of motherhood—it’s the way mothers prove their devotion and commitment to their children. And increasingly, with fears of rising rates of childhood obesity and headlines about heavy metals in baby foods, it’s also an extremely anxiety-provoking and high-stakes parenting endeavor.

“Making sure that kids feel loved and cared for takes precedence over assuring that they have the most nutritious diet.”

All mothers are looking for ways to feel better about the fact that they’re falling short of this ideal. But the resources they have at their disposal are really different—for low-income mothers, it’s impossible to imagine being able to consistently buy their kids organic food or make their babies purée every day, so they have to look for other ways to feed their kids that make them feel like good moms. Being able to buy kids the food they like, the food that brings a smile to their faces, that is how low-income moms derive a sense of worth and feel like they’re doing right by their kids. Making sure that kids feel loved and cared for takes precedence over assuring that they have the most nutritious diet.

Can you speak about the double standards that we have as a society around parenting at different income levels?

Absolutely. For higher-income moms, for white moms, there is sort of a benefit of the doubt given. If they’re letting their kids eat, for example, a bag of Doritos, it’s because they’re not overly meticulous, they’re being laid-back, they’re being cool. There are these positive associations with [giving children treats]. But when low-income moms do it, the assumption is that they’re negligent, careless, or ignorant about what their kids should be eating; that they’re unable to control their children. It’s amazing how the exact same action, even the exact same food, can generate such a wildly different societal judgment.

One thing that stuck out with me from reading the book was this idea of downscaling and upscaling as an act that parents do. Could you just describe what that means for parents at different income or socioeconomic levels?

I found that parents across the income spectrum engaged in emotion work to feel better about how their kids were eating and what they saw as their children’s dietary shortcomings and their own shortcomings as caregivers. But they use really different strategies fundamentally shaped by their socioeconomic position.

So low-income mothers used downscaling, a term coined by the sociologist Marian Cooper, which describes trying to push down the feelings of guilt of anxiety in order to bring forth feelings of contentment, and to basically cope with really difficult circumstances.

With feeding, downscaling involves doing things like, if your kids aren’t eating a nutritious meal, shifting the focus away from the nutrition of the meal, and focusing instead on the fact that you’re eating that meal together, or that your kid isn’t picky—any number of things. It can also involve shifting the focus away from food entirely, to where the way that you evaluate yourself as a caregiver has very little to do with what your child is eating and more to do with the fact that you’re able to spend time with them, that you’re able to take them to the water park on the weekends, that you are there for them when they need you.

For higher-income parents, they engaged in what’s called upscaling. Basically, it’s the opposite of downscaling—it’s where you escalate the guilt and anxiety with the hope that you will compel yourself to do better on your kid’s behalf. But what I found was that for higher-income moms, they never actually reached the bar that they were trying to get to.

I told the story of Janae, who’s a Black, high-income mom with three daughters who wanted to feed her kids a nutritious, healthy diet and always felt like she was falling short. She changed her job to be able to cook more meals at home, but then she would feel guilty that that still wasn’t enough, and that she needed to be cooking every night of the week. Every time she got closer to the standards she had set for herself, she would raise the standard even more. This is how intensive mothering works.

Toward the end of the book, you focus on some of the systemic inequities parents face and the policy decisions that make those inequities hard to escape. How are you feeling now about the state of the policy prescriptions that you detail in the book’s final chapter?

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I feel excited about movement around universal school meals and ensuring that all children have [free] breakfast and lunch five days a week. But at the same time, there has been a rollback of some of the nutrition standards in those meals. And we need to get those back on track, because it’s not enough just to combat hunger. We also need to ensure nutrition security and ensure that kids are getting healthy meals; culturally tailored meals; meals that they enjoy, that fill them up, that teach them about food, and that set them up for educational success. As we emerge from the grasp of COVID and back to in-person schooling, it’s really important that we get those nutrition standards back on track.

“If we can elevate families out of poverty and materially improve families’ conditions, we actually have a real shot at improving their diets and reducing inequities.”

Similarly, we’ve seen in other countries that COVID has sparked a discussion about the role of diet and diet-related disease in severe viral outcomes. We haven’t really seen that in the U.S. One part of that discussion might involve doing something like regulating the marketing of junk food and beverages, especially to children. In the U.S., where Big Food and Beverage have so much power, there’s not a lot of regulation, and that is really unfair to families and to children. There’s so much progress to be made on the marketing front still, and there’s been very little change from the pandemic.

As far as broader policies, the fact that we’re talking about paid leave, that we’ve increased child tax credits [as part of the Biden administration’s COVID response], that we’re discussing childcare assistance and housing assistance—these are remarkable policies that would actually begin to tackle the root causes of hunger, poverty, and diet disparities. The fact that we can have these conversations is really exciting.

All of these policies are actually deeply intertwined with food. If we can elevate families out of poverty and materially improve families’ conditions, we actually have a real shot at improving their diets and reducing inequities.

What is the one takeaway you want to make sure people get from this book?

Food access exists in relation to a constellation of other factors and hardships that families experience that in some ways matter even more. We need to be having a broader conversation about what drives nutritional inequality and what it’s going to take to reduce it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Matthew Wheeland is the managing editor of Civil Eats. He is a long-time environmental journalist and has covered a wide range of environmental, sustainability, and social justice subjects over the past 20 years. His reporting has appeared in The Guardian, The San Francisco Chronicle, and many other publications, and he previously worked as managing editor of GreenBiz and AlterNet. He lives in the Bay Area with his family and is a big fan of navigating the complexities of the food system. Read more >

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