The Poor Diet

Sur­pris­ing new re­search up­ends the con­ven­tional wis­dom on the con­nec­tion be­tween in­come and food choices

EatingWell - - FRESH | THINKING -

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.”

By SIM­RAN SETHI

SOURCES: Har­vard Univer­sity; U.S. Bureau of La­bor Sta­tis­tics

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