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Disparity at Dinner Tables

Photo by Dave Titensor


When it comes to fixing the nutritional inequality that exists in America, building more grocery stores isn’t the answer, says Priya Fielding-Singh, assistant professor in the U’s Department of Family and Consumer Studies. While many families know that eating healthy food is a good idea, grappling with the emotional impacts of living in poverty—and facing the pressure of a powerful food and beverage industry—has a far more powerful impact on diet than proximity to produce, Fielding-Singh says. Her new book, How the Other Half Eats, examines some of the deeper causes of nutritional inequality. 

How does income influence what people eat?

Living in affluence or poverty influences people’s diets not just by impacting the food they can afford, but also by shaping how they think and feel about food. In my research, I saw that moms across income levels care deeply about their kids’ diets. But they also face a lot of pressure from kids to buy unhealthy foods. For lower-income moms who can’t afford to say yes to many of their kids’ requests, junk food becomes a symbolic antidote, a more affordable way to give something to children that signifies care to them and bestows dignity unto moms.

What can be done to address the problem?

We need social policies that elevate families out of poverty so that a bag of Doritos is no longer such a symbolically potent symbol of love. Banning the food industry from marketing within schools, putting restrictions on when food and beverage ads can air on TV, and making it illegal for food and beverage companies to target low-income kids and children of color would be a start. 

Why do we need to be concerned about children’s nutrition?

We tend to think about diet as the result of personal choice, but it’s not. How families and kids eat is shaped by broader structural forces. We live in a society where some children are in a position to develop healthy eating habits and others are not; that matters because the food we eat has cascading effects on our life chances.

Understanding nutritional inequality moves Fielding-Singh. Share a cause close to your heart at love.utah.edu.

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  1. We also tend to eat in a way that feels like “home” – mom’s cooking. I recently had a conversation with a friend where she explained that she and her siblings fought over who got seconds of vegetables. My mom became a parent at such a young age, that she didn’t really know how to cook. That said, other than celery, apples, and cucumbers, I never really had fresh vegetables. Only canned or the ones that were in my tin-foil TV dinner tray. No one was vying for more of those. Unfortunately, when I also became a young mom, on with income levels on government poverty scales, a lot of meals came from a box, like Hamburger Helper and frozen pizzas.
    As an adult, I’m still learning how to prepare healthier food with more nutritionally dense fresh options.

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