The Poor Diet
Surprising new research upends the conventional wisdom on the connection between income and food choices
Food is love. It’s a sentiment shared across classes and cultures—and highlighted during the holidays. But not everyone is equally well-fed: approximately 1 in 8 Americans—including 13 million children—experience food insecurity annually, meaning they lack consistent access to adequate amounts of food. To compound the issue, these families are also more likely to have unhealthy diets. Why do hunger and unhealthy food go hand in hand? A recent study has uncovered a novel perspective.
The Problem with “Fixing” Food Deserts
Experts often say hunger and poor diet are connected because low-income neighborhoods can lack access to fresh fruits and vegetables—they’re food deserts. This theory has fueled policies and interventions that attempt to bring more fresh food into these neighborhoods. But the results have been so-so. A study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that increasing low-income families’ access to healthy foods improved diet by only 9 percent. “Food-desert programs imply a silverbullet solution, but that’s a misguided approach,” says Priya Fielding-singh, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University, who has spent the better part of a decade wrestling with this question. “It glosses over the root causes of diet disparities.”
Nourishment Beyond the Body
Instead of just looking at where people live, Fielding-singh says we need to address the psychological drivers of food purchasing too. Interviewing 160 parents and kids of varying incomes, she found that low- and high-socioeconomic parents attribute very different meanings to buying junk food. “Poor families use food to compensate for other realms of scarcity,” she says. While they may not have the means to buy their kids bikes or fancy clothes, they can “splurge” on inexpensive ice cream or soda when their kids ask for it. “In a world where parents have to constantly say no to their kids’ wishes, cheap junk food offers them a rare chance to say yes.” And all parents understand these foods aren’t healthy. “No one told me, ‘Giving my kid a doughnut is a healthy option.’ Everyone wanted their kids to eat more fruits and vegetables,” she says. But, for low-income parents, these small treats reinforce feelings they can provide joy for their kids. The opposite was true for financially secure parents: restricting access to unhealthy foods was a way to show their affection. For people who were consistently able to say yes to their children’s material needs, saying no to a request for junk food was perceived as responsible parenting.
Bridging the Divide
Clearly, solving this diet disparity is a multifaceted issue. One place to start is education—not necessarily for parents, but for children. “Kids play a huge role in what families eat, especially in poor families,” Fielding-singh says. “They’re the ones whose tastes and preferences often guide everyone’s diet.” And most kids like junk food. “Giving them an apple, even if you can now afford it through programs like SNAP [formerly food stamps], isn’t going to be an act of love if they don’t want it. It’s an act of love when what parents can give is equal to what the kids want.” Many low-income children receive free meals at their public schools, making it a key place to shift taste buds. Research shows that kids who eat more fruits and veggies at school ask their parents to buy more produce at the store and choose to eat it at home. There’s also broader public perception. “Food and parenting are two realms where it’s easy to judge other people’s actions,” she says. “I hope my research will help others realize that any of us in that situation would do the same to show our children that we hear them, love them and can provide for them.”
SOURCES: Harvard University; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics