A Glimpse At 'How The Other Half Eats' : Code Switch How do race and class affect the way we eat? What makes dollar store junk food different from organic junk food? And when did Whole Foods become such a polarizing grocery store? We're getting into all those questions and more with Priya Fielding-Singh, author of the new book, How the Other Half Eats.

A Glimpse At 'How The Other Half Eats'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1060073647/1062263911" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, HOST:

This is CODE SWITCH from NPR. I'm Karen Grigsby Bates. And, listeners, as we mentioned a few weeks ago, we're in the process of searching for our next full-time host. And at the same time, Gene Demby is out on parental leave. In the meanwhile, we're going to be bringing you some of our favorite people to come co-host the show. So joining me today in the host chair is journalist Doualy Xaykaothao. Hi, Doualy.

DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO, BYLINE: Karen, KGB, (non-English language spoken) You are one of my favorite persons, so this is extra special for me to share the mic with you.

BATES: And it's great to have you here. And I just learned what your name means. Doualy, in Hmong, means shadow of the moon in English, which is beautiful, so much more beautiful than Karen (laughter). So shadow of the moon, today on the show, we're going to be talking about food and how the way we were raised, our class, our race, our culture, our families can affect the way we eat.

XAYKAOTHAO: Absolute truth.

BATES: So I'm wondering, Doualy, do you have a memory that you think really encapsulates how your family thought about food when you were growing up?

XAYKAOTHAO: Well, you know, our family came to this country as refugees four decades ago. And when we first arrived, I have to say, you know, my mother was overwhelmed just entering, like, a simple grocery store because she just thought, there are so many things. There's an abundance of items and whatnot. But today, it's, like, even worse because it's, like, how many different brands of chicken must there be? And is this beef from here or there? What's free-range? What's organic? You know, my mother, bless her heart, never learned to read or write in English, though she tried for so many years. And she's still asking us, like, which grocery stores should I be shopping at? And, you know, what's the difference between Kroger and Aldi and Trader Joe's? And she just wants a whole chicken and lots of eggs for (non-English language spoken) which is our traditional spirit-calling ceremonies.

BATES: Hey, I am feeling your mother on this. I understand this totally. I get paralyzed with anxiety when I walk down the cereal aisle of most any grocery store.

XAYKAOTHAO: Yeah, right?

BATES: And I don't even buy much cereal. But there's hundreds of boxes of this stuff. It's like, what are you going to do?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

XAYKAOTHAO: How about you, Karen? What's a food memory you have that stands out?

BATES: Well, Doualy, I can tell you that the Civil War was fought almost every night in my house at the dinner table.

XAYKAOTHAO: What? Tell me more.

BATES: My mom was a Southerner. My dad was a Yankee. And they each have very specific ideas about carbohydrates. So Mother was raised in North Carolina, and she preferred rice, you know, steamed with butter or with gravy or as a base for chili or some kind of stew. Daddy was born and raised in Connecticut as, you know, I was. I grew up there. And he was a potato man through and through - you know, baked, boiled, pan fried, hashed. He just wanted potatoes. And I swear they kept track of how often each was served in any given week. And sometimes the south won, sometimes the north. And I was kind of glad when summer rolled around because then there was plenty of potato salad and corn on the cob for a few months, and nobody complained about either of those.

XAYKAOTHAO: KGB, I've been waiting for the invitation to your dinner table for how long now?

BATES: Well, you'll have to come back this way, and we'll have potatoes and rice and you can just choose what you like.

XAYKAOTHAO: Yeah, yeah, yeah, sounds good.

BATES: Yeah. In the meanwhile, I got to speak to a sociologist who was really curious about how different people feed their children differently depending on their circumstances and whether or how that might lead to dietary gaps in this country. That researcher's name is Priya Fielding-Singh, and she documented her findings in a new book called "How The Other Half Eats The Untold Story Of Food And Inequality In America." And Priya told me that she started writing this book because she wanted to debunk the idea that food deserts were the primary driver of food inequality.

XAYKAOTHAO: Wow, that's fascinating. Let's hear some more.

PRIYA FIELDING-SINGH: Despite our best efforts, we haven't been able to get a lot of leverage on what is driving nutritional inequality. And for years, researchers, policymakers, food pundits alike have sort of hung their hat on an explanation that has actually just turned out to be pretty disappointing, which is an argument that I think a lot of listeners will recognize, the food desert argument, so this idea that there are low-income communities, often communities of color, that do not have supermarkets within their bounds and that this lack of supermarkets leads to a lack of fresh produce, which leads to poor diet quality. And this is an argument that it has a face validity to it, and it's also gotten a lot of traction. Like, it was an argument advanced by Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign in the 2010s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHELLE OBAMA: Right now, there are 23.5 million Americans, including 6.5 million children, who live in what we call food deserts in the inner city and in rural communities.

FIELDING-SINGH: And it's still kind of the prevailing, broader understanding of what the problem is. But it just doesn't hold up when put to the test. And so my work is trying to come in and say, OK, if it's not all about food deserts and differences in geographic food access, which we now know it isn't - in fact, the most kind of robust research we have suggests that just about 10% of the dietary gap can be attributed to differences in food access. If it's not that, then what else is going on? And I was really interested in the project and investigating how these broader inequalities, the ones, in many ways, that shape differences in food access, also shape differences in dietary beliefs and behaviors across families.

BATES: So to go beyond the food desert misconception, you did a ton of interviews. You talked to a lot of people. You ended up focusing on four.

FIELDING-SINGH: So I conducted about 160 interviews with parents and kids across race and class. And after I conducted all of these interviews, listened to parents and children tell me about the different challenges when it came to eating and feeding, I realized that I needed to spend some time embedded within families to really see how these narratives that I was hearing played out in families' daily lives. So I chose families that varied both socioeconomically and ethnoracially because I wanted to understand the kinds of trade-offs that parents, moms in particular, made and how those were shaped by their backgrounds and their environments.

And with each family, I spent months living alongside them. I wanted to be a part of their daily lives, so I didn't just come around when it was dinner time or around a meal. I would just go and hang out for hours. And the amazing thing about food is that - sure, it always comes up at meal times. But it's kind of omnipresent. Like, there are so many small moments in a day where food shows up. And I wanted to be there for all of those moments, not just at the dinner table, but also at the supermarket and the drive-through and the birthday parties and the back-to-school nights.

BATES: How much, Priya, do you think that race and culture plays into the relationships these different families have with food? And I'm thinking of two examples in your book that really stuck out about assimilation. There was Leticia (ph), who was an upwardly mobile Black mom who wanted her kids to be educated in food and fed the best things, mostly as a class marker. And at the same time, there's also the story of Teresa (ph), who's a Mexican immigrant whose story is used to talk about how immigrants' palates get Americanized. Can you talk about those two women a little bit?

FIELDING-SINGH: Yeah. Absolutely. So Leticia was a really interesting example of - Leticia was a Black single mom who had grown up in a pretty low-income household. She had eaten, you know, Oscar Meyer, Wonder Bread. And she had gone to Stanford University. She had been upwardly mobile, had made her way into the upper middle class. And for her, the most important thing was teaching her children how to eat the way that upper middle-class people, she believed, should be eating. And, you know, Leticia was a great example of someone who really wanted to leave behind the food that she had grown up with, the way that she had eaten.

And I think part of it was also that Leticia understood that when people looked at her Black children, they might make assumptions about what their diets were. They might make assumptions about their tastes. And she wanted everyone - she wanted her kids to show very clearly that they were in the upper middle class, that they belong there and that they had tastes that might be associated with being white. And I also showed that was a bit of what was going on with another mom, Janay, in my book, who told me during our interview that if I didn't know the color of her skin, I might think that she was a white family because of how she ate, because her kids ate kale and avocado and yogurt.

So I found that, especially moms of color, were really thoughtful and concerned about the stereotypes that people might hold of their children's diets, of their children's bodies. And they were pushing back against those stereotypes. And they were saying, despite what you may think, I am teaching my kids to eat the right way. And for moms who were in, you know, the higher end of the income spectrum, that often meant saying, you know, I'm teaching my kids to eat the white way, too. And that's not completely the story, you know? Janay also wanted her kids to eat soul food. But she didn't want that to be the entirety of their diet because she didn't think that that was going to serve them also where they were going. So it was an - it's an interesting and important tension that moms feel.

You know, for Teresa, Teresa was an immigrant to this country from Sinaloa, Mexico. And Teresa cared really deeply about her son eating the food that she had grown up with and knowing the dishes that her grandmother had served her. And feeding her son those dishes was a really important way that she passed on her culture and traditions to him.

But at the same time, Teresa also believed that in order for her son to fit in, to assimilate - whatever that means - to not be bullied, he needed to learn how to eat American foods. And some of those foods, sure, were not the healthiest foods, but they were a part of an assimilation story that Teresa wanted for her son. And sometimes, you know, the question is posed, why would - why do moms who immigrate to this country not just feed their kids, quote-unquote, "traditional" foods? And part of it is that they don't see that as a negative thing, feeding their kids American food. They want to be able to do both - both pass on what they brought, but also ensure that their kids succeed in this new country.

And for Teresa, you know, one story she told me was that, you know, when she was growing up in Mexico, her family was really poor, and they could never afford to eat out. And she would walk home from school, and she would walk by this restaurant that had white tablecloths. And she would look in the window, and she would think, oh, I wish I could do that. I wish I had that. And when she came to the United States, you know, even though she was working low-wage jobs, cleaning houses, she would sometimes make enough money to be able to take her son out, whether it was to McDonald's or Applebee's. And the two of them would sit together in a booth, and Teresa had given to her son what she had always wanted.

BATES: So everybody eats, right?

FIELDING-SINGH: Yeah.

BATES: It was part of the thesis of your book, that it's so universal that we all have to do it. We all have to care about it. I think that what was one of the things that was so interesting about your research is that everybody at some point eats junk, you know, just across the economic spectrum. Even if you're in a grocery store that has lots of healthy alternatives, if you have to go check out, there's usually rows and rows of candy and chewing gum and chips that are right before you get to the register, and I have to think that's not a coincidence.

FIELDING-SINGH: Absolutely. And that's actually, you know, part of the reason that the food desert argument has proven to not be that powerful of an explanation because when people - just opening a supermarket in a food desert, when people walk into the supermarket, they are confronted with all of these unhealthy foods. It's not like what's opening in a food desert is just a shop that has fresh fruits and vegetables. It also still has...

BATES: Vegetables R Us. Yeah.

FIELDING-SINGH: Exactly, exactly. It still has all of the sugary cereals and the sodas and the candy bars, and all of that stuff is, you know, calorie for calorie, much cheaper. And it's delicious, and it's what kids want. So just because a supermarket opens - if all of that stuff is available and, you know, smacking people in the face when they enter, that's going to make it really difficult to make healthier choices.

BATES: Yeah. And it's going to make the healthier choices less attractive to the young people in your shop who are hanging out in your shopping cart, urging you to do something besides the broccoli and the Brussels sprouts that you're offering them.

FIELDING-SINGH: Yeah, exactly, exactly. And that's a really important part of the story, that today, you know, kids wield a lot of influence in what gets eaten in families, and that's a change that's also happened over the past 30, 40 years. And it's a change that the food industry has really encouraged. It's encouraged this idea that kids should get to choose what they eat, and we should cater - families should cater what is consumed to children's preferences. You know, the idea that we should have separate meals for adults and children, the idea that foods are kid-tested and mom-approved - like, this is a marketing ploy that aims to get parents to buy their kids foods that corporations want, not necessarily what parents themselves would choose for children.

For moms who are raising their kids in poverty, in a fair amount of scarcity, being able to make ends meet really depends on saying no to children. Like, you cannot keep enough money to pay the rent, to pay utilities, to put gas in the car, if you say yes to your kids' requests 'cause kids are asking for so much all the time. And I watch these moms say no to their kids again and again and again and again, and I realized something really simple, which was that in this world of no, food - and really junk food in particular - was one of the few things that these moms could say yes to on a daily basis. It was unique in this way. It was cheap - you know, it usually cost a buck or two - and their kids loved it.

And so I found that even though moms wanted their kids to eat a healthy diet, they also wanted to show their children that they heard them, that they love them and that they could give them not just some of what they needed, but also some of what they wanted. And so, you know, understanding those dynamics, understanding what the experience of raising a child in poverty does to a mother as far as impacting the way that she can provide for her children - and, quite honestly, the way that she can feel about herself as a caregiver - really helps us understand that while from a public health standpoint, the Cap'n Crunch is not the most nutritious option, if we think about it from an emotional nourishment standpoint, that cereal actually makes a lot of sense.

BATES: It's interesting because at one point you're saying that low-income moms have learned that it makes more sense financially basically to just get what their kids will eat because that way the food at least isn't wasted. I'm wondering if you saw any guilt about the trade-offs they were making between having their children be full, which I know is a problem, and being full of the right stuff.

FIELDING-SINGH: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, there was a lot of maternal guilt across the families that I met and guilt for different reasons. But for low-income mothers, really, a central challenge was that they wanted to be feeding their kids certain foods. Like, they wanted their kids to have some fruits and vegetables in their diet. But financial circumstances meant that, you know, trying to buy those foods, trying to force them on kids could often result in that food ending up on the dining room floor. And for these moms who are living so close to the bone, they can't afford that wasted food. And so, you know, what - a lot of the mothers who I met had - parents of teenage children, so they were in a stage where, you know, they had tried when their kids were young. It hadn't worked. They'd ended up with wasted food. And so they had learned over the years really to prioritize satiety, to prioritize having their kids eat enough.

And I think that there was guilt about, you know, being full versus being full of the right stuff. But I also found that when raising kids in such a context of scarcity, that making sure your kids were full was also a source of pride for these mothers. Like, it was evidence for them that they were good caregivers, that they made sure their kids never went hungry, that they - you know, that they provided for their children, even when it was tough.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

XAYKAOTHAO: So much food for thought in that conversation.

BATES: Yeah. And there'll be more where that came from after the break. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BATES: Karen.

XAYKAOTHAO: Doualy.

BATES: CODE SWITCH. And we're back, talking about food, culture and equity.

XAYKAOTHAO: And Karen, we're going to hear more from your conversation with author and sociologist Priya Fielding-Singh.

BATES: I thought it was really interesting that, throughout your book, Whole Foods kept popping up. I remember one of the dads saying, yeah, you know, before I got laid off, we would just - that was our field trip. We'd go to Whole Foods. I'd just let them run wild and pick up the, you know, fruit they wanted, the weird vegetables they wanted, the meat they wanted because we knew it was good stuff. Other people would say, well, I try to shop at Whole Foods mostly because I think it's good - you know, it's healthier than in the grocery store. How did Whole Foods become this avatar of middle-class intelligent consumption?

FIELDING-SINGH: Yeah. I was also struck by the number of times people mentioned Whole Foods even if they didn't shop there.

BATES: It was aspirational.

FIELDING-SINGH: Exactly. Or, like, I would never shop at Whole Foods, that's not my kind of place, because it's about more than - yeah - just what's on offer at Whole Foods. It's about Whole Foods signifies about you as a person, about your consumption ethos. And, you know, I talk in the book about how different foods, while kind of nutritionally similar, signify really different things. So I talk about how higher income moms are very concerned about, like, feeding their kids Cheez-Its. But they will buy organic cheddar squares that are, really, largely nutritionally comparable. But they can buy the latter at Whole Foods. They feel like it's still a better choice. And, kind of equally as striking, they feel like they should not be allowing their kids to have Cheez-Its.

And I think that Whole Foods kind of reminds me of just the amount of stock that's put in a name. You know, Whole Foods sells produce. Sure. But it also sells a wide range of processed, less healthy products. But I think for some folks, just shopping at Whole Foods almost makes them think that they're buying healthier, better products for their families, when that's not necessarily true. But that's the association that we have with that supermarket. And conversely, we have the association with dollar stores or, you know, kind of less high-end supermarkets, that the products are less healthy or lower quality, when that's also a questionable assumption.

BATES: You have some well-off families who know their kids will have enough to eat in this book. But they focus on what their kids are eating. One of your moms, Julie (ph), told her - one of her kids, we don't eat for comfort, which really struck me because it's the opposite of why a lot of us eat. I mean, we eat to become full. But we also eat because that grilled cheese reminds us of, you know, the nice time we had in the third grade. Or, you know, that slice of cake reminds us of a favorite birthday. Who is - I mean, who is Julie? And what did she mean by that?

FIELDING-SINGH: So she had been a full-time caregiver to her son and her daughter. And I would say, that comment was not fully aligned with how Julie actually fed her children. I think that that comment reflects, in some ways, an aspiration for how her kids should think about food. She wanted her kids to learn how to control themselves around food, to regulate their consumption, to be thoughtful and mindful about what they were putting in their bodies. And so while I saw Julie eat for comfort - and I saw her kids do it, too. And I saw that a lot of the foods that graced their plates were about taste and enjoyment. What Julie wanted to teach her kids was that that should not be your primary focus when it comes to food. Your primary focus should be on the nutritional quality, on the healthiness, on the way that it's serving your body. And I found that Julie was not unusual in that regard. Like, that was something that a lot of higher income moms told me that they wished for their children.

Now, you know, kids in these families also ate junk, you know? There was junk across the board. But in higher income families, there was much more discussion about limiting junk, about rules around how much junk food kids can eat. There was a lot more restriction and monitoring even if parents didn't always phrase it that way. Like, sometimes they talked about having guidance or, you know, scaffolds. But really, these were kind of rules around food. And I found that, you know, the ability to have those kinds of rules and to frame food that way was, really, a privilege that was not equitably distributed across families. Like, the fact that these moms had so much to say yes to about their kids made it so that saying no to food was not as emotionally distressing as it was for lower income moms. You know, Julie never wondered whether her kids were truly going without. She knew that they weren't.

BATES: In your book, money is important not just for the kind of food it can buy you, but for the kind of time it can buy. You give the example of a working mom, Delfina (ph), who says she ate a lot better as a child than her own son does now. And she works in a grocery store. But time is at a premium. Delfina's mom didn't work outside the home when she was growing up, so she cooked all the meals. Delfina uses takeout a lot because it allows her to spend some time with her son that she wouldn't otherwise have, you know? She's home in the evening. He comes home from school. If she doesn't spend three hours making dinner, if she gives in and, you know, they put a frozen pizza in, they're able to spend some time together, which she also thinks is critical. Is this also a challenge for better-off moms? Or do they have different time constraints? Delfina is really clear about why she's doing this, I'm wondering if some of the other mothers in your research were.

FIELDING-SINGH: Yeah. I think time scarcity was a challenge that came up across the board. Like, most of the mothers in my study were working full-time or part-time. I also had stay-at-home caregivers. But the vast majority of moms were working. They had multiple kids. Those kids were busy in various activities. They were juggling a lot. And time to grocery shop and cook felt in short supply. But I found that, you know, when in a pinch, money could compensate for times scarcity. So the ability to pay a premium to order groceries and to pick up prepared foods from, yet again, Whole Foods - the ability even to hire someone to come and cook or to prep meals - that was something that came up a few times - the ability to order in full meal services. You know, time is something that all moms wanted more of. But it was only the moms with the most resources that could deal with the time scarcity and still feed their kids the kinds of meals that they wanted to.

BATES: So I have to ask you a nosy question. You're now a mom. And you weren't, as I understand it, when you started your research. Did your research influence how you feed your daughter? And if it did, how?

FIELDING-SINGH: Yeah. It absolutely did, but sometimes in a way that surprises people. I think that there might be the assumption that because I spent so much time thinking about and researching and speaking with mothers about how they feed their children that I would become really fixated on what my daughter ate or have, you know, kind of increasingly high standards. But I think what doing this research showed me was something that I had known before, but I really felt it, which was that I am really privileged in the circumstances that I'm raising my daughter in.

Like, I am fortunate to have financial resources to feed her with. I have a relatively flexible job in academia that allows me time to think about and prepare meals. And I think that an awareness of just how much privilege I have, especially after spending time with families of such different means, it's allowed me to take a step back and to not worry or stress as much about my daughter's diet. The other thing is, you know - and I write a bit about this in the book, my early experiences after my daughter was born and the sense of responsibility and accountability that I felt for her body and her well-being. And I knew, doing the research, that this is how mothers felt. But I felt how mothers felt when I became a mother.

BATES: Yeah.

FIELDING-SINGH: And I understood in a visceral way how much was on me to nourish my daughter and to be on the hook for what she ate and what her body was like. And I think that becoming a mom helped me understand, on a really emotional level, what so many of the mothers that I'd spoken to had told me. And that emotion, you know, I tried to leverage to permeate the way - you know, my writing and the book and the way that I portrayed mothers and told their stories. So while I did the research before I became a mother, I'm grateful that I became a mother while I was writing the book because I think it really shaped the way that I put words to the page.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BATES: Once again, that was the author and sociologist Priya Fielding-Singh.

XAYKAOTHAO: You know, hearing that conversation makes me so grateful for all the wonderful meals that I've had the opportunity to share with my family. And I hope that our listeners get to do the same.

BATES: Me, too. That's our wish for you for the season. And that's our show. We want to hear from you for real. Email us at codeswitch@npr.org. You can also hit us up on social media. We're at @NPRCodeSwitch on Twitter and Instagram.

XAYKAOTHAO: This episode was produced by Jess Kung and edited by Leah Donnella.

BATES: And a shout out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Kumari Devarajan, Christina Cala, Alyssa Jeong Perry, Summer Thomad, Sam Yellowhorse Kesler and Steve Drummond. Our art director is LA Johnson. Our intern is Aja Drain. I'm Karen Grigsby Bates.

XAYKAOTHAO: And I'm Doualy Xaykaothao.

BATES: See you.

XAYKAOTHAO: (Non-English language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.