How does parent income affect a child’s diet? It’s complicated

The mother who lives in the $2 million home, the mother who raises her children in poverty — and women in the socioeconomic classes in between — all agree on what a healthy diet should be for their children.

Sociologist Priya Fielding Singh spoke to them at length, involved herself with families of varying incomes for months and noted the choices that went into feeding their children.

What I found was eye opening. Unhealthy diet is the number one contributor to deaths in the United States, she said, and there is a huge gap in diet quality between rich and poor Americans — known as nutritional inequality — but the reasons for it are more complex than people realize.

“I can’t overstate how true this misconception is that low-income parents don’t know what a healthy diet is,” Fielding Singh told TODAY.

“No mother has told me that she thinks soft drinks and fast food are healthy options for her children, and almost every mother has agreed that fruits and vegetables are the types of foods that should be at the heart of their children’s nutritional intake.”

But despite these shared values, the circumstances in which mothers raised their children greatly influenced the way they think about fast food, home cooking, and what to buy in the grocery store.

The concept of “food deserts” wasn’t as important as previously thought, Fielding Singh writes in her new book, How the Other Half Eats: The Untold Story of Food and Inequality in America.

When high-income mothers have more dietary rules and are proud to say “no” to their children’s calls for candy and chips, low-income women have compelling reasons to say “yes.”

Priya Fielding Singh met 75 families for her project. She focused on four mothers and their food choices.Courtesy of Vero Kherian Photography

Then, there are complicated attitudes toward whole foods, kale, and organic snacks.

Fielding Singh, associate professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah, focused on women, who are still likely to be responsible for food in the home.

She shared some of her findings with TODAY:

Food deserts are not the problem

Fielding Singh: The term food desert became really popular in the early 2010s, mostly due to Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign to end childhood obesity.

She said that people living in low-income communities suffer from poor diet quality because they face significant barriers to accessing healthy food. They have to shop at gas stations or convenience stores because they can’t get to supermarkets.

But when you put the food desert argument to the test, it really isn’t corroborated by the data. Most people in this country shop in supermarkets, whether they live in a food desert or not – 90% of supermarket trips are made by car.

When a supermarket opens in a food desert, people just go from shopping away to this new supermarket closer. But that doesn’t actually change what they buy, so if they were buying frozen pizza and fries from a farther supermarket, they would buy the same things from the nearest supermarket.

It makes a lot of sense: our food choices aren’t just about what we have access to, it’s about the meanings food holds for us.

Why do some moms say “yes” to fast food

Fielding Singh: For mothers who raise their children in poverty, their ability to make ends meet depends on having to constantly say “no” and that’s very difficult because kids ask for things all the time and because feeling like a good parent is in part about being able to give kids what they want.

For these moms, fast food was one of the few things they had at their disposal to be able to say “yes.” So even though they don’t want their children to eat those foods, in the context of such extreme scarcity, saying “yes” really makes a lot of sense. It was symbolically very powerful. Show their children that they hear and love them, and show themselves that they are competent caregivers.

There are more dietary rules in richer families

Fielding Singh: It’s amazing how exactly the same act of saying “no” was annoying to low-income mothers, but it was a source of pride to high-income mothers.

They were raised in a “yes” world where you can give your kids special school and family vacations, so saying “no” to food wasn’t emotionally painful. It was easier for higher-income parents to act on those values ​​and beliefs they shared with lower-income parents about healthy foods because they had so many other things to say “yes” to.

It helped them feel that they were good caregivers, as if they were making sure that their children’s diets were healthy and that their children were learning self-control regarding food.

Processed and processed foods buy time and satiety

Fielding Singh: While it may be true that home-cooked meals can be healthier and less expensive, home cooking guidelines really seem far removed from the reality that parents live in and what it’s like to work a full-time job and take care of your children.

One of the really simple reasons a mom might choose to serve pizza instead of a home-cooked meal is that those comfort foods are fun and delicious, and at the end of a hard day’s work when you’ve been on your feet for 12 hours already, the idea of ​​going and standing over the stove for another hour doesn’t compete With the alternative option to choose something.

Low-income mothers often prioritize buying food they know their children are eating. If they try to make vegetable stir-fry, chances are their kids won’t eat it, but if they order pizza, they can guarantee that their kids will eat that food and go to bed that night full.

The ability to navigate children’s eclecticism is a luxury that is enabled by financial resources.

Cabbage vs. Cabbage: How the state of food is shaped by race and class

Fielding Singh: There are very different opinions about these greens even though they are very similar in reality. Some of that comes from the fact that our societal understanding of what makes food healthy is due in part to the nutritional value of the food, but also to who historically consumed it.

Kale has been praised as this super nutritional food. It has been linked to something slender white women of the upper middle class consumed.

Whereas, collard greens, which are nutritionally comparable, have not received the same recognition. It’s a major ingredient in soul food, a cuisine associated with black culture in the United States and one that I would say has been largely derided as unhealthy.

The aura around whole foods

Fielding Singh: Whole Foods was the supermarket most featured in my conversations with moms. It’s more than just a grocery store – it’s really a guide to a particular diet, lifestyle, and social class.

For high-income moms who shop at Whole Foods, there is often this basic assumption that the products they buy were better and healthier. Sure, there’s something to it: Whole Foods has a wide selection of organic fruits and vegetables. They have exhibits of certain products that are not available anywhere else.

But Whole Foods also sells processed foods that aren’t necessarily better nutritionally than foods you can buy at lower-priced supermarkets. But for the moms who were buying squares of organic cheddar for their kids at Whole Foods instead of Cheez-Its at Lucky, there was a feeling they were feeding their kids something better.

Emotional attachments to food go beyond health

Fielding Singh: Many of our food choices, after all, have less to do with health or nutrition than with the other roles that food serves in our lives. It brings us joy, connection, pleasure, and nostalgia. So anyone who thinks it’s just about health and nutrition would be mistaking the broader context in which we make these choices.

This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.

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