The verdict is in: Food deserts don’t drive nutritional disparities in the United States the way we thought. Over the past decade, study after study has shown that differences in access to healthy food can’t fully explain why wealthy Americans consume a healthier diet than poor Americans.
If food deserts aren’t to blame, then what is?
I’ve spent the better part of a decade working to answer this question. I interviewed 73 California families — more than 150 parents and kids — and spent more than 100 hours observing their daily dietary habits, tagging along to grocery stores and drive-through windows. My research suggests that families’ socioeconomic status affected not just their access to healthy food, but something even more fundamental: the meaning of food.
Most of the parents I interviewed — poor and affluent — wanted their kids to eat nutritious food and believed in the importance of a healthy diet.
But parents were also constantly bombarded with requests for junk food from their kids. Across households, children asked for foods high in sugar, salt and fat. They wanted Cheetos and Dr. Pepper, not broccoli and sweet potatoes. One mom echoed countless others when she told me that her kids “always want junk.”
While both wealthy and poor kids asked for junk food, the parents responded differently to these pleas.
An overwhelming majority of the wealthy parents told me that they routinely said “no” to requests for junk food. In 96% of high-income families, at least one parent reported that they regularly decline such requests.
Poor parents honored their kids’ junk food requests to nourish them emotionally, not to harm their health.
Parents from poor families, however, almost always said “yes” to junk food. Only 13% of low-income families had a parent that reported regularly declining their kids’ requests.
One reason for this disparity is that kids’ food requests meant drastically different things to the parents.
For parents raising their kids in poverty, having to say “no” was a part of daily life. Their financial circumstances forced them to deny their children’s requests — for a new pair of Nikes, say, or a trip to Disneyland — all the time. This wasn’t tough for the kids alone; it also left the poor parents feeling guilty and inadequate.
Next to all the things poor parents truly couldn’t afford, junk food was something they could often say “yes” to. Poor parents told me they could almost always scrounge up a dollar to buy their kids a can of soda or a bag of chips. So when poor parents could afford to oblige such requests, they did.
Honoring requests for junk food allowed poor parents to show their children that they loved them, heard them and could meet their needs. As one low-income single mother told me: “They want it, they’ll get it. One day they’ll know. They’ll know I love them, and that’s all that matters.”
Junk food purchases not only brought smiles to kids’ faces, but also gave parents something equally vital: a sense of worth and competence as parents in an environment where those feelings were constantly jeopardized.
To wealthy parents, kids’ food requests meant something entirely different. Raising their kids in affluent environment, wealthy parents were regularly able to meet most of their children’s material needs and wants. Wealthy parents could almost always say “yes,” whether it was to the latest iPhone or a college education.
With an abundance of opportunities to honor their kids’ desires, high-income parents could more readily stomach saying “no” to requests for junk food. Doing so wasn’t always easy, but it also wasn’t nearly as distressing for wealthy parents as for poor ones.
Denying kids Skittles and Oreos wasn’t just emotionally easier for wealthy parents. These parents also saw withholding junk food as an act of responsible parenting. Wealthy parents told me that saying “no” to kids’ pleas for candy was a way to teach kids how to say “no” themselves. Wealthy parents denied junk food to instill healthy dietary habits, such as portion control, as well as more general values, such as willpower.
Both wealthy and poor parents used food to care for their children. But the different meanings they attached to food shaped how they pursued this goal.
Poor parents honored their kids’ junk food requests to nourish them emotionally, not to harm their health. Similarly, wealthy parents who denied their kids processed foods did so to teach them healthy lifelong habits, not to deprive them.
Nutritional inequality in the U.S. has more to do with people’s socioeconomic status than their geographic location. Living in poverty or affluence affects more than our access to healthy food: It shapes the very meanings we attach to food.
Tackling nutritional inequality will require more than putting supermarkets in low-income neighborhoods. These interventions won’t change what food means to the poor families I met.
But lifting them out of poverty could. If low-income parents had the resources to consistently meet their kids’ desires, maybe a bag of Doritos would be just a bag of Doritos, rather than a uniquely potent symbol of parental love and care.
Priya Fielding-Singh is a doctoral candidate in sociology at Stanford University.