In her new book, How the Other Half Eats, sociologist Priya Fielding-Singh delves into food inequality in the United States. The book is the culmination of years of in-depth ethnographic research. The author interviewed 160 families across the demographic spectrum and closely embedded herself with four of those families. It includes discussions of how people’s backgrounds and upbringing can influence how they eat and feed their children. Challenging commonly held beliefs about inequity, the nutrition gap, and food apartheid, Fielding-Singh calls for more empathy and less judgment for parents as they try to feed their kids under often challenging conditions.
One of the main themes addressed is low-access food areas (commonly known as food apartheid or food deserts). For years, policymakers have cited a lack of nutritious and fresh food in low-income areas as a key cause of the nutrition gap. While the author is emphatic in agreeing that food apartheid is a very real problem, it does not fully explain dietary inequalities. Fielding-Singh notes that the most robust research available suggests that food apartheid only accounts for 10% of the nutritional gap between the high and low income. On the other hand, she notes that most people in America drive to get groceries, and observed through her research that “it was especially the lower-income families that were willing to drive further to get groceries, to get the best deals. And while supermarket openings increase residents’ perception that they have access to healthy food, it doesn’t change anything about what kinds of food they purchase.” Clearly, other forces are at play, and more investigation is needed to understand the nutrition gap fully.
Another aspect of the book details the differences in how high versus low-income parents address junk food with their kids. It’s a privilege to be able to teach your kids about the differences between healthy and junk food and to limit unhealthy food. On the other hand, low-income parents often don’t have the luxury of making that choice.
So, if removing food apartheid isn’t the silver bullet solution, what should be done? Fielding-Singh makes a great point in noting that “there are billions of dollars being made off of children acting on unhealthy preferences for junk food, soda, and fast food. And the food and beverage industries spend billions of dollars every year cultivating in children those desires and tastes. They’re literally profiting off of poisoning children.” She also points out that schools present a great opportunity to help shape kids’ preferences and provide nourishment that kids might not get at home.