To understand poor families’ food choices, look beyond economic rationality
At the beginning of your book How the Other Half Eats: The Untold Story of Food and Inequality in America, you write that you started working on food inequalities when you realized how oversimplified this phenomenon was in the media and public policies. What did you mean by that?
Priya FIelding-Singh : The discussion about food inequality in the US is so narrowly focused on food access and food deserts, but these terms don’t actually account for how low-income families eat. When I started my work, my intuition was that the way people actually make choices about food, and what food means to them were not only individual questions: broader forces and processes were involved.
Low-income mothers would take their kids outside to eat and spend more on food than they had to because it mattered so much to give their kids something that could bring a smile to their faces.
And what did you eventually discover?
P. F.-S. : My research dispels the idea that you need to have groceries within walking distance to buy the food you want. It is a false assumption. Sure, people need to be able to physically access food and financially afford to have enough to eat. But these are baseline things to have. They are necessary but insufficient conditions to actually address dietary inequalities. In the US, 90% of supermarket trips are made by car. Even the poorest families that I met had a car because they had to. They needed it to commute to work, to go grocery shopping, etc. Actually these families were willing to drive further to get to the supermarkets where they could get the best deals. The idea of food deserts misses the point of what matters to people when they buy food. It turns out that many Americans are pretty willing to drive to buy their food.
Do poor families and mothers spend more on food?
P. F.-S. : Not exactly. Lower-income families are more price-oriented in their food purchases. They spend less money on food but a greater share of their income on food than higher-income families. Yet many low-income mothers also told me that sometimes they ended up spending more money on food. Why? To get their kids what they wanted. Sure, the cheapest thing that a mother can do to feed her child is to cook them rice and a can of beans. But among the families that I met, for these low income mothers, being able to say yes to their kids for food was so important : a can of soda, a snickers bar, a happy meal, etc. In a context where they have to say no to everything else, in order to pay rent, gas, etc., saying yes was so symbolically powerful. They would take their kids outside to eat and spend more on food than they had to because it mattered so much to give their kids something that could bring a smile to their faces.
It shows that food inequalities are deeply contextual...
P. F.-S. : The broader financial world in which these mothers raise their kids is so important in shaping their food choices and expenses. In that sense, bolstering safety net policies, instituting affordable housing, increasing the affordability of child care could shift food choices because these policies have the power to impact what food means to these families and how families make food decisions. Financial stability would change how mothers buy food and how they feed their children. These policies are fundamental in addressing nutritional issues, even though they are not framed as nutritional policies.
How have you been able to perceive these challenges?
P. F.-S. : To shed light on all this broader context and systemic forces, my job as a sociologist was to go speak with people, spend time with them, and embed myself in their lives. I knew there would be a lot of skeptics about my research : there can be an assumption that qualitative and ethnographic methods are not as scientific or as rigorous as quantitative ones. People told me that I could have just surveyed people without interviewing them. In that survey, I could have asked people what matters most to them in their food choices, and included response options like: how healthy the food is, how convenient the food is, how close the food is, etc. People would fill out the answers...but I realized that they would not tell me anything, because food choices are so complex. A survey would strip out the broader context and tell you more about how a person thinks about food choices in an ideal world, if there were no other influences on them. Ethnographic methods bring the context in rather than trying to control for every parameter. Ethnographic methods consider the neighborhood you live in, your family, how you make difficult choices about what you want to eat... And if you want people to tell you about all of this, you have to build trust with them. It is the most important thing to do in order to learn from people.
The food and beverage industry plays a tremendous role in this too, by praying on low income families of color and children, trying to cultivate in them a desire for addictive, unhealthy and tasty food.
How did you deal with these families and mothers' subjectivity in your interviews?
P. F.-S. : Food is a very loaded topic that mothers feel very judged and evaluated on. It is a sensitive issue to discuss with them since there will always be a social desirability bias. People will want to put forth a certain kind of self-presentation. To prevent these biases, I did not frame the study around diet and nutrition but rather about food and food choices. I did not bring up the terms health or diet. Actually, people brought these up themselves: it shows how these topics are connected in people's minds.
I also made it very clear that I was a sociologist and not a nutritionist. I was interested in how people made choices about food but I had no investment in the diet quality of what they ate. I was not here to judge them or dispense advice, but rather to learn from them.
Mothers feel judged about their food choices... which confirms the idea that these ‘individual’ choices are profoundly embedded in our whole system and society.
P. F.-S. : In the US, we think about these issues through a lense of individual responsibility and blame: people should be able to control themselves and make healthy choices. We miss the fact that we are embedded in contexts that can drive unhealthy choices. The food and beverage industry plays a tremendous role in this too, by praying on low income families of color and children, trying to cultivate in them a desire for addictive, unhealthy and tasty food. Why is it that kids are asking their parents for cheetos [snacks] all the time? Because they see cheetos everywhere in their life: in the metro station, in the stores they go to, in schools... These snacks are everywhere and they are not very expensive. We need to tackle this issue by banning food marketing to children, for instance. And we need to shift the focus from the individual to the collective and accept our societal responsibility to care for each other and nourish each other.
I want people who have lived through poverty to sit at the table when we discuss these issues and when decisions are made.
So what do you say to policymakers?
P. F.-S. : My hope is that policymakers, but also practitioners, physicians and people working with poor families, can better understand their choices and behaviors rather than judging them or treating them as irrational. We need to dispense with widespread ideas of ‘economic rationality’. Actually, when you are living in that degree of financial precarity, spending your last dollar for your child can be an extremely rational decision. When you know that money is going to fly out of your wallet anyway, providing something for your child when you have money is really smart. Dispelling these myths about how poor families behave was at the heart of writing the book, and that is the reason why it is story-driven. A lot of academic books are written with arguments first and people's experiences are dropped here and there. I wanted to flip it. Families’ stories are the book, with sociological insights throughout.
It is also why, in the book, I talk about myself, my own background and what brought me to this work and how I approach research and science in general. Often, scientists abstract themselves out of the work that they do. But if you share only limited information about who you are, and the subjectivity that you put in your work, it can be hard for people to ask questions about this work, what you could have done differently. Having a bit of openness and vulnerability is important to make your story accessible and convincing. It helps to build trust with your readers.
You want policymakers to understand how poor families make choices and decisions...
P. F.-S. : In fact, my hope goes beyond that. I want people who have lived through poverty to sit at the table when we discuss these issues and when decisions are made. Because if you want to address these inequalities, you have to go beyond many false assumptions about how poor families make choices. And you can only do this by talking to them and deciding with them.