Maybe Food Deserts Aren’t the Problem After All

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Book cover with dinner plate and author with long brown hair and yellow shirt.
Priya Fielding-Singh’s ‘How the Other Half Eats’ offers a fresh perspective on America's nutrition gap. (Author photo by Vero Kherian Photography)

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hen people read the title of sociologist Priya Fielding-Singh’s new book, How the Other Half Eats, they might assume that it’s about how poor people eat. And it is that, in part. But in fact, Fielding-Singh tells me, the book is an attempt to assess how all Americans eat.

“Everyone’s ‘other half’ is somewhat different,” the Utah-based sociologist says.

Out since November, How the Other Half Eats is the product of years of ethnographic research, most of which Fielding-Singh conducted when she was a doctoral student at Stanford. Which is to say that the book is, among other things, very much a document of the Bay Area in specific. It’s a portrait of how food inequality plays out in a place that has a nearly unimaginable wealth disparity—a gap that’s widening year by year. To understand how that inequality plays out on the dinner table, Fielding-Singh interviewed 160 families across the demographic spectrum, closely shadowing four of those families—four mothers, in particular, who share their food-related hopes and frustrations.

The book is wide-ranging: It delves into how trying to force your kid to be a less picky eater is mostly a luxury afforded to the relatively affluent. (Low-income families can’t afford the wasted food.) It explores the use of food as a signifier of social status. It devotes multiple chapters toward assessing the disproportionate balance of time and emotional labor that mothers, across all demographics, have to spend feeding their families.

Perhaps above all, the book is a referendum on American policymakers’ recent focus on food deserts—the idea that the main reason why low-income folks don’t eat as well is because they don’t have access to a supermarket in their neighborhood. Eliminating food deserts was, for instance, one of the core tenets of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative.

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How the Other Half Eats calls that very premise into question. It also asks readers to be more empathetic—to stop judging parents for the way they feed their kids. Instead, Fielding-Singh writes, the more important question is to ask, “How can we, as a society, ensure that parents—all parents—have the means necessary to nourish their children?”

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.


The book’s subtitle is “The Untold Story of Food Inequality in America,” which I think is a bold statement to make—that no one has properly told this story yet. Can you describe how your book is different from the other literature that’s out there about food inequality in America?

My motivation in writing the book was this wealth of epidemiological research showing that there are really important disparities in diet across class and race in the United States—what’s called the “nutritional gap.” And it’s a gap that is longstanding. It’s durable. It’s not closing. And it matters profoundly because of just how much our diets influence our health, well-being and other broader outcomes.

For about the past decade, there has been this prevailing narrative about why we have food inequality in this country—that there are key differences in geographic access to healthy food. I want to be really clear: Food deserts are real. They exist. There are important disparities in access to healthy food. And there are certainly areas where it is hard to get a hold of fresh and ripe and tasty fruits and vegetables.

But what we know from mounting research over the past four to six years is that geographic access inequalities are actually a pretty poor explanation of dietary inequalities. The best research we have suggests that they account for about 10% of the nutritional gap between rich and poor. In a car-centric nation like America, the vast majority of people actually drive to get groceries. In my research, it was especially the lower-income families that were willing to drive further to get groceries, in order to get the best deals. And while supermarket openings increase residents’ perception that they have access to healthy food, it doesn’t actually change anything about what kinds of food they purchase.

And so my book comes in and says, “Well, okay. If it’s not just—or primarily—food access, then what else is going on? What other forces are at play?” That’s the part that we haven’t talked about.

One of those forces that you talk about in the book is the way that wealth and social class influence people’s decisions around food in somewhat surprising ways—in the way that parents deal with children who are picky eaters, for instance, or the extent to which they allow their kids to eat junk food. Can you elaborate on that?

One thing that I found with all the moms that I interviewed was that they all wanted their kids to eat a healthy diet, and they shared pretty broadly similar ideas about what that meant. I noticed that higher-income moms were always talking about the ways that they were trying to rebuff their kids’ junk food requests.

But for moms who were raising their kids in poverty, making ends meet was completely dependent on saying no to their children. You could not make the rent or put gas in the car or pay the utilities if you said yes to what your kids asked for. I watched Nyah—the lowest income mom in the book whom I spent time with—say no to her kids continuously. And it was heartbreaking for her. And in this world of no, that Snickers bar, or the ice cream cone from the neighborhood ice cream truck, that was something that Nyah could almost always say yes to her kids about. It was one of the few things she had that she could afford that her kids liked, and that could bring that smile to their face every single day.

Wealthier moms like Julie, the highest-income mom I observed, parented in this world of endless yeses, just by the neighborhood and the house she was able to raise her kid in. And so in this world of yes, saying no to junk food just wasn’t very emotionally distressing.

I think that these emotions related to parenting have really been missing from the conversation about inequalities in families’ diets and in the ways that kids eat.

Most of your research was conducted in the Bay Area, which, as you note in the book, has as wide of a wealth gap as anywhere in the country. How did that specific setting influence your findings?

Sometimes when I talk to audiences, they ask that question too: “Well, the Bay Area is so extreme. How much of the story can be generalized?” And the way that I frame it in the book is that the Bay Area is a trendsetter in the American story of inequality. It’s not an outlier. A lot of trends that we’ve seen happening in the Bay Area, like the skyrocketing incomes at the top, the hollowing of the middle class, increasing residential segregation, financial hardship among the poor—all of these things are happening in cities across America.

And so I think that the story I’m trying to tell is a Bay Area story, but it’s also an American story.

What’s the solution, then, if it isn’t just a matter of eliminating food deserts?

Yes, if people take away from the book that we need to move the conversation beyond a myopic focus on food deserts, I will be very happy.

This is a massive and extremely complex problem that we cannot easily walk ourselves back out of, but the way that I think about solutions is to approach it from two angles. First, on the social safety net side, I think we need to decide as a country what the minimum standard of living is that we’re okay with a family having. And so many of the mothers that I met were raising their children under conditions of such intense and unconscionable scarcity, that it feels completely unrealistic and offensive to ask them to also be able to feed their children healthily.

So things like instituting a living wage and expanding access to affordable housing and affordable, high-quality childcare—policies that would actually lift families out of poverty. Because my work shows that living in poverty shapes the meaning of food, and the meaning of food is what drives food choices. And so we need solutions that actually shift the meaning of food.

On the food systems side, we live in a country where 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.

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And so I would advocate for really strong regulations of marketing. And I think schools are a place where we have a lot of power, actually, to help shape kids’ preferences—to take some of the weight off of families and make parents’ lives easier.