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Examining nutritional inequality

It isn’t just access to healthy food that shapes diets, but also people’s relationships to food.

In the United States, diet and nutrition follow a socioeconomic gradient, with wealthier people consuming higher quality diets than lower income people. For years, it’s been thought that food deserts were the culprits. The narrative is that families in food deserts are forced to shop at convenience stores and gas stations, where fruits and vegetables are scarce. The real answer, however, is more complicated.

“If you look at the percentage of people living in food deserts in this country and take into account how many residents own a car or have access to a privately owned vehicle, then it’s just about 3% of the population,” said Priya Fielding-Singh, assistant professor in the University of Utah’s Department of Family and Consumer Studies. “The assumptions we’ve made about how and where the vast majority of people grocery shop—including folks who live in food deserts—are actually not correct.” In fact, most people (about 90%) buy their food at supermarkets and most supermarket trips are made by car.

If a food desert isn’t the cause of diet disparities, then what is? Fielding-Singh has spent years researching this question, looking at nutritional inequality and following families across the income spectrum for her forthcoming book, "How the Other Half Eats." What she found is that it isn’t just access to healthy food that shapes diets, but also people’s relationships to food.

“The experiences of being rich or poor, and particularly the experiences for families of raising children in poverty or affluence, actually fundamentally shape the meaning of food itself,” said Fielding-Singh. “These different meanings are central to the story of why families with diverging resources eat so differently.”

No matter their economic background, Fielding-Singh found that parents understand that junk food is not ideal for kids. But Fielding-Singh also discovered that for parents with limited resources, food choices weren’t solely based on nutritional value. “Because of financial scarcity, raising kids in poverty means having to say ‘no’ a lot,” she explained. “So, for these parents, food—and specifically relatively cheap junk food—is one of the few things that they can actually say ‘yes’ to their kids about in daily life.”

If economics impact what food means for different families, then the answer to improving eating habits may go beyond making healthy food available. It may require that we also improve the quality and economic circumstances of families’ lives overall. “Diet disparities reflect much broader inequalities,” said Fielding-Singh. “The fact that junk food is one of the only things that low-income parents can give their kids on a daily basis tells you everything you need to know about their economic conditions. The way to change that fact is to ensure that all families have enough resources to be able to offer their children more than a bag of Cheetos.”

The pandemic has highlighted how boosting families economically can impact their relationships with food. While it was expected that the virus would drive food insecurity rates up, an increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, child tax credits and other programs have prevented the hunger crisis from completely spiraling. There are other social safety net programs that were in place before the pandemic that could also be expanded to address the issue longer term. For instance, in half of US states, SNAP recipients get double the dollars for buying fruits and vegetables—so they don’t have to choose between keeping a kid healthy or making them feel heard and appreciated. The resources are there; the question is how to mobilize them in a way that works.

“Opening supermarkets in food deserts has not turned out to be the panacea we expected,” said Fielding-Singh. “But that just means we have to work even harder to find and address the root causes of nutritional disparities.”

If you are a member of the University of Utah community who is experiencing food insecurity, check out the Feed U Pantry located in the Union building. The pantry provides non-perishable, nourishing food for U students, their families, faculty and staff.