‘How the other half eats’: Utah author digs into inequities at the dinner table

Gender, racial and social inequalities affect the foods that end up on families’ dinner tables, Priya Fielding-Singh says in her new book.

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune) In her book, "How the Other Half Eats," Priya Fielding-Singh explores the burden that mothers face with food responsibilities, and how gender, racial and economic inequalities make their way onto families’ dinner plates in America.

A few days after giving birth to her daughter, Priya Fielding-Singh brought her baby to her pediatrician’s office for a checkup. As her husband placed their infant on a scale, the nurse cheerily told the couple, “Let’s see how good of a job Mom is doing.”

“In that moment, my heart sank,” Fielding-Singh wrote in her first book out this month, titled, “How the Other Half Eats: The Untold Story of Food and Inequality in America.”

“My daughter’s body, I now understood, was feedback about my parenting,” wrote the assistant professor in family and consumer studies at the University of Utah.

Fielding-Singh knew there were “medical questions that lay behind the nurse’s casual comment, and I assumed her intentions were good.” But the message it sent to Fielding-Singh was “that I was only as good a mother as the number on that scale revealed.”

In her book, Fielding-Singh explores this “tightrope that American parents — largely mothers — walk to get by and feed their kids while maintaining their dignity in contexts often designed to strip them of it.” And she digs into “how gender, racial and economic inequalities make their way onto families’ dinner plates,” by “intimately following four families” across the income spectrum from 2014 and 2016.

“Food is a really loaded topic,” that comes with “so much judgment ... in our society,” she said, and that’s why Fielding-Singh wanted to build “trust and rapport” with the families so they would be comfortable to “share how they’re really thinking about food,” without fear of critique or unsolicited advice.

The families that Fielding-Singh shadowed live in the San Francisco Bay area, but Fielding-Singh said she thinks their experiences — reluctantly ordering takeout and battles over which items make it into the grocery cart — are relatable to Utahns.

“The stories that I tell ... about these broader social forces that are influencing how families make food choices ... are actually pretty American stories,” she said.

With a narrative style, Fielding-Singh brings readers into the living rooms and kitchens of the Bakers, a Black family living on an income below the federal poverty line; the Williamses, a working-class white family just above it; the Ortegas, a middle-class Latinx family; and the Cains, an affluent white family.

Fielding-Singh also shares how her identity as a “biracial, second-generation South Asian American, highly educated millennial woman” has shaped her own relationship with food.

The Salt Lake Tribune spoke with the author earlier this month. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

“How the Other Half Eats” was released Nov. 16 and can be purchased through Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, Amazon and Apple Books.

You talk a lot about the idea of trying to be a “good mom,” and how food responsibilities fall on women, starting at pregnancy. How can we change that perception or alleviate the stress placed on moms?

That’s a huge theme of the book, is that really, the burden of feeding and nourishing families is squarely placed on moms’ shoulders. There’s a couple of things at play here. In our country, we have really unreasonably high standards of what it means to be a good mom, standards that are pretty unattainable even for the most privileged in society. Standards that are also based on really traditional gender roles of mothers, in particular, being their children’s primary caregivers and self-sacrificing.

Most mothers in today’s society are working. There’s [less] time to devote to preparing home-cooked meals. Children are busier than ever. Families are struggling financially. And so these cultural ideas of what it means to be a good mom are just completely out of reach and out of touch with reality. Because of that, moms feel like they are falling short all the time. They are wracked with guilt about the ways that they’re not doing right by their kids, particularly when it comes to feeding their children.

I think about how we could design policies that take some of that burden off, and put it onto schools, churches, redistribute it within families, so that moms aren’t the only ones who are doing this work. If we can do that, then we actually have a chance at reducing the amount of stress, anxiety and guilt that moms feel.

Your daughter was born in 2019, while you were working on this book. Has that changed your perspective of your work?

Before Veda was born, I wondered how I would take care of a baby and also write a book. But looking back, I feel so grateful that I was going through early motherhood while writing because it helped me empathize more deeply with the mothers who I profile in the book. It helped me viscerally connect with the stories and bring that emotion into the narrative in a way that I don’t think I would have had I not become a mother myself, and experienced how fraught it can be to feed your child, how challenging it can feel to always be on the hook and be evaluated for that child’s body, weight and health.

On the flip side, I feel extremely grateful that I was able to do this research before I had a child. It has allowed me to give myself so much more grace and slack in feeding her than I think I would have otherwise, knowing that there aren’t a lot of supports and how almost every mother that I met felt like she was falling short.

(Vero Kherian Photography) Priya Fielding-Singh, and assistant professor at the University of Utah, wrote the book "How the Other Half Eats: The Untold Story of Food and Inequality in America."

You started your research before the coronavirus pandemic. But how do you think COVID-19 shapes the way that readers understand your work?

A lot of the processes that I uncovered in the book are only more relevant during the pandemic, especially for families on the lower end of the income spectrum.

Disparities in who experiences food insecurity have only widened during the pandemic, to where Black households now experience food insecurity at three times the rate of white households, and Latinx households at twice the rate. A lot of the issues that I talk about are going to continue to play out, and I don’t see those going away anytime soon.

At the same time, the pandemic actually gave me cause for optimism. Policies I’ve advocated for for years, such as expanding SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, once referred to as food stamps] benefits and implementing universal school meals so that all kids, not just kids below a very stringent income threshold, have access to two meals a day, became possible during the pandemic. Some are temporary, but we’ve seen over the last two years that policies that once seemed completely politically infeasible are actually on the table.

I argue in the book that policies that address social determinants, poverty, inequities related to housing and wages and wealth might not seem like food policies, but they are food policies. They will have cascading effects on families’ food choices and nutrition.

Why was this research and book important to you to do?

There’s a lot of interest and discussion about food and food choices, and in understanding topics like nutritional inequality, food insecurity, hunger, food access. But we don’t have a great sense of how they actually play out in people’s lives.

We can survey people across the country and ask them to recall what they ate. It’s really valuable because it gives us a sense of what’s going on broadly, but it doesn’t give us a sense of what’s going on in a deep way, how people are really making these difficult choices around food, making these difficult tradeoffs, how their environments, their neighborhoods, schools, family shape those food choices.

Was there anything that surprised or stuck out to you?

Something that I hope that readers take away, is that we are not going to solve these broader issues of food and inequality simply by fixing food deserts, simply by opening supermarkets in low-income neighborhoods where there might not be a lot of grocery stores.

Food deserts are real. I’m not going to say that they’re not. There are certainly really important differences in access to healthy food and less healthy food. But, in many ways, food deserts and food access is really the tip of the iceberg. It is kind of the symptom of these really deeply rooted inequalities that differentially shape people’s lives.

My hope is that we can move the conversation away from food deserts, which are just not that helpful of a concept, and talk about other issues that I think are more relevant and fundamentally driving disparities in diet-related health across society.

What are those other issues?

Talking about where poverty comes from, how poverty is experienced is a really important piece of this. Sometimes we talk about these issues in really superficial ways that don’t get at how that experience of living in financial insecurity shapes the way that a parent thinks and feels about the food that their kids eat. In the book, I talk about how not making a livable wage forces parents to work multiple jobs; not having access to affordable housing can force evictions that make it difficult for parents to have access to a kitchen.

Some of the most interesting insights really come from showing how poverty can make food an accessible antidote to adversity. Parents can use food to buffer their kids against scarcity, to treat kids when there’s nothing else to give them.

Children’s happiness seemed really important in the parents’ decision making.

That has also been missing from the conversation, that kids’ happiness, a smile on a kid’s face, is honestly one of the most central things to parenting. Wanting to provide for your kids and show your kids that you love them is so fundamental to what it means to be a parent. But we haven’t really connected the dots between that need and food choices, when those things are really deeply connected.

Kids being picky eaters also played into parents’ decisions, especially if the child wastes food when the family struggles to afford it.

The interaction of finances with kids’ preferences and pickiness and stubbornness is really interesting and shows how the exact same behavior from a child can play really differently for parents who have money to spend on more food, even if their kid tosses it on the ground or refuses, versus low-income parents who have a finite, often insufficient amount of money to spend on food.

(Little, Brown Spark) "How the Other Half Eats" by Priya Fielding-Singh.

In one chapter, you talk about how the popularity of kale is skewed toward the upper, middle class and white people. What does kale say about your broader research?

I use kale to show how our understandings of what is healthy, and who is healthy, are not always based on nutrition per se, but on certain associations between the food itself and who has produced and consumed it.

We think about what’s healthy as sort of an objective assessment. But it’s not. We more harshly judge Black parents who feed their kids collard greens than white parents who feed their kids kale, even though kale and collard greens are basically the exact same nutritionally. We derogate certain types of food, like soul food in particular, while we extoll the virtues of foods like quinoa, yogurt and avocado toast.

For the most part, what we’ve defined as healthy [are] foods that are associated with white, upper middle class people, with white bodies and thinness. And we’ve relegated other foods that are associated with Black and brown bodies as unhealthy. That’s completely out of touch with food’s nutritional properties and with reality.

In the book, I talk about, primarily, Black mothers who spend so much of their time pushing back against these stereotypes of them as negligent caregivers, as mothers who only feed their kids fried chicken. They have this added burden of not only having to carry the gendered weight and responsibility of feeding, but also having to fend off really racist stereotypes about what kind of caregivers they are.

What do you hope the title “How the Other Half Eats” conveys?

In all honesty, my agent came up with the title, and I loved it the second that I heard it. Because depending on who you are, your other half is different than who my other half would be. If you’re low income, then your other half is high income, and vice versa. It’s a title that I think really captures just the range of stories and experiences that are at the heart of the book.

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.