Have you ever thought about how differently one family eats compared with another? Sociologist and ethnographer Priya Fielding-Singh, PhD, certainly has. Her book How the Other Half Eats offers a critical examination of nutritional inequality in America through the lens of social class, race, and health, intimately following four families across the income spectrum in an exploration of the meaning of food itself. The book reveals the thin tightrope that parents—mostly mothers—must walk to feed their children while maintaining their dignity and sense of worth, even as others judge and critique their food choices. In this excerpt, Fielding-Singh explores how children’s hunger and pickiness work to shape the food that makes its way onto families’ dinner plates.
For low-income moms, financial scarcity can give way to food scarcity. The ever-present threat of running out of money means living with the fear that food can also just as easily run out.
During my years observing how and why families ate the way they do, I found that these fears of burning through the last food reserves were often rooted in moms’ prior experiences. For instance, Nyah Baker, a low-income mother I came to know well through my work, knew what it was like not to have enough to fill her daughters’ stomachs. The memory that haunted her most viscerally came from a time when her now 16-year-old daughter, Mariah, was still in diapers.
One evening, the six-month-old had awoken from a nap and proceeded to drink all of the formula meant to last two more days. With the formula depleted and no money to immediately restock it, Nyah paid her local food pantry a visit. There, she learned that they wouldn’t be getting any formula in for another twenty-four hours. Desperate, Nyah returned home and tried giving her daughter whole milk. But the taste was foreign and unappetizing; Mariah spit it out and wailed from hunger. Nyah called her aunt who lived an hour away and who promised to bring Nyah some more formula the next morning. Nyah stayed up all night with crying Mariah while she awaited her aunt. Sixteen years later, when Nyah closed her eyes, she could still hear her ravenous daughter’s screams. Nyah never wanted her daughter to be in that kind of pain again—and she’d do everything in her power to make sure she never was.
Nyah wasn’t alone. Other low-income moms had similar stories to share—some distant memories like Nyah’s and others like Delfina Carrillo, a spunky single mom of three and a supermarket cashier, exemplified this prioritization. I met Delfina one afternoon in the three-bedroom, twelve-hundred-square-foot apartment she shared with her youngest son, fifteen-year-old Luis. Delfina, a second-generation Mexican-American woman, wore a blue tank top and jean shorts that hit right above her knee. Chatty and candid, Delfina paired a contagious laugh with a tendency to gesture enthusiastically.
Like Nyah, Delfina had lived through periods when the fridge was empty and the freezer was headed in that direction too. Feeding herself and her three kids on a cashier’s salary had been a feat of magic that she’d worked hard to pull off, all while trying to hide the emotional toll that relentless struggle took. For years, what had proven extremely stressful for Delfina was that all three of her children—who loved sports and seemed to rotate through growth spurts on a weekly basis—were always hungry.
“They had serious appetites,” Delfina chuckled, rubbing her stomach.
Some afternoons, the kids returned home from school insatiable. And if money hadn’t been an issue for Delfina, her kids’ appetites wouldn’t have been either. If they’d wanted second or third helpings of dinner every night, she could easily have bought more food.
But money was an issue, and therefore, so was their hunger. While two of her three children were now grown and living outside her home, Delfina would never forget the lesson she’d learned over the years of filling their bellies. That lesson was that she had to be painstakingly intentional about how she grocery shopped—about how and where she put her hard-earned dollars toward food. If Delfina wasn’t careful, she could easily blow through the week’s earnings on food that didn’t fill her kids up and left them tossing and turning in their beds from growling stomachs. Delfina learned, in those moments, to prioritize satiety.
But another hard lesson that Delfina learned was that her kids could be as picky as they were ravenous. This is a lesson many parents are taught at some point, and often the hard way. They discover that trying to get toddlers and children to eat something new comes with risks. Giving kids unfamiliar and less preferred foods can lead to battles, ones that kids are more likely than parents to win.
When her kids were little, Delfina discovered that even if her children were starving, they wouldn’t eat just anything. They could—and often did—turn down dishes they didn’t like, even throwing them onto the floor. When this happened, Delfina grew frustrated and more stressed: not only was that food on the floor wasted, but Delfina was out the money that it had cost her to buy it. The sociologist Caitlin Daniel has written about this bind that kids’ pickiness creates for low-income moms. Daniel interviewed moms of young children and observed their trips to the supermarket, and she discovered that low-income moms had to consider not only how much food cost but also what would happen if their kids refused it. “To avoid risking waste,” Daniel explained in her New York Times opinion piece, “these parents fall back on their children’s preferences.”
The mothers I met were caring for teenagers, rather than the young children in Daniel’s research. But I found that even as these moms’ children grew up and quit tossing food off the table, their preferences and pickiness continued to pose a challenge to moms’ concerns about wasting food. Moms explained that they’d learned early on in their kids’ lives that catering to kids’ preferences was a more financially sound choice than attempting to force new foods on them. Crafting menus toward what children wanted all but eliminated the possibility of wasted food and money. When moms customized shopping lists to kids’ tastes, then whatever food they bought was consumed and contributed to their children’s growth and satiety.
Delfina’s drive to fill Luis up at home was related to the fact that Luis often went hungry during the day. Delfina worried because Luis frequently skipped school lunch. Having eaten it since elementary school, her son had grown tired of the monotony of flavors and textures. What was on offer never seemed to change. Sometimes, to tide himself over until school let out, Luis turned to the school snack shop. There, he’d buy Smart Snacks.
Since 2014, the food industry has reformulated popular brands of snacks to meet the CDC’s Smart Snacks in Schools standards but packaged them to resemble the widely available, less nutritious versions. These look-alike versions of junk food get kids exposed and hooked. Luis could buy reduced-fat or low-sodium versions of his favorite snacks, like Cheetos, Doritos, and Sour Worms. The packaging was the same, the taste virtually identical, and the price under two dollars a bag. Outside of school, when they stopped at a gas station or picked up school supplies from Walmart, Luis would ask his mom for those same treats. Delfina would oblige, unaware that his school was helping cultivate her son’s demand for the junk she wished he’d avoid.
But when Luis didn’t have the money to buy school snacks, he returned home in the early afternoon starving and ready to raid the family’s kitchen. Those afternoons, Delfina catered to Luis’s requests because doing so ensured he wouldn’t go hungry. She got him what he asked for. Sometimes that involved buying him Papa John’s, Taco Bell, or Panda Express. Other times, it meant that Delfina cooked for Luis. She asked him before going to the supermarket exactly what he wanted so she could be sure to purchase something he’d eat. Delfina knew that if she bought or baked Luis a pizza, he would definitely fill up on it. But if she insisted that he eat green beans, he might go to bed hungry.
“The most important thing to me is that I have something Luis likes so he will eat,” Delfina said, running a hand through her thick brown hair. “He’s happy. I’m happy.”
Indeed, when Delfina plopped down with Luis on the couch after a long day, she was quick to sacrifice her own food preferences to assure her son’s. She’d get Luis whatever he wanted and try to fill herself up with something shelf-stable. It was not unusual for Delfina to skip a meal so Luis could order Domino’s. Delfina would grab a can of soup or beans, or a few flour tortillas she kept in the kitchen cupboard for exactly that reason. The stuff she got from the food pantry wasn’t her favorite, but it was certainly edible. Delfina sometimes ate less so that Luis could eat more. Delfina went to bed hungry so Luis wouldn’t have to.
This is the irony of many moms who work in the food system—in supermarkets like Delfina, at restaurants, or on farms. Surrounded by food all day, they can find themselves food-insecure and constantly worried about their children’s satiety. Indeed, food workers in the U.S. are more likely to experience food insecurity than workers in other industries. The numbers are even starker for restaurant employees, who report food insecurity at double the rate of the U.S. population. And compared to their male and white counterparts, women and workers of color like Delfina are more likely to experience hunger. The sad and unjust irony was that Delfina helped make the food system run, but she couldn’t afford to reliably feed herself or her kids the way she wanted.
Thinking about what to eat for dinner that night, Delfina told me she’d probably order Luis a pizza. She grimaced, joking about how sick she was of cheese and bread. But then, leaning back on the couch, Delfina grinned. “As long as he eats,” she said, shrugging, “I’m happy.”
While moms like Delfina were focused on ensuring their kids had enough to eat, the wealthier moms I spent time with during my research often seemed more concerned about their kids having too much to eat—especially of the “wrong” things. Such an ability to worry about the particulars of kids’ diets, I came to see, was an inequitably distributed luxury. Knowing that there would be enough to fill their children’s bellies, wealthier moms focused on the details of what went into those bellies. Rather than losing sleep over whether the foods their kids ate were satiating, moms instead focused on sculpting kids’ preferences.
“We don’t eat for comfort,” Julie, a high-income mom I observed, explained to me one afternoon while we sat on the couch watching TV, folding laundry, and awaiting her daughter Jane’s return from school. I asked Julie if she talked to Jane and her son, Evan, about that. Did her kids know that they shouldn’t be eating for comfort? Of course, Julie replied, flipping through the channels, landing ultimately on CNN. But it wasn’t like she wanted them not to enjoy food. Rather, Julie said, she wanted her kids to love food but also know that its primary purpose was to keep them alive.
“I also want them to think, Well, I don’t necessarily need all this food either,” Julie clarified. “My body can do without it.”
Julie’s comment about restricting certain foods reminded me of Patricia Adams, a white single mom with an easy laugh and an eye for order. I joined Patricia’s family at home on a calm winter evening, and the two of us sat kitty-corner at a kitchen table with bright yellow checkered place mats and a vase of pink tulips in the center. Patricia, who had a master’s degree in education and worked as a private-school teacher, had just finished cleaning up from dinner. Her eldest daughter, Zoe, was on her way home from volleyball practice, and her two younger daughters, Mary and Louise, were finishing up their homework in the living room. Every occasion that Patricia and her daughters were around food, she told me, presented an opportunity for her to teach them something about what to eat and what not to eat.
“I’ve done my own bit of research on food,” Patricia explained, straightening out the place mat. “So I try to buy organic and healthy and limit the amount of fat and hydrogenated oils that we eat. It’s really important to me what we eat.”
Despite the fact that Patricia and Delfina were both single moms working full-time with kids at home, their situations diverged sharply. Compared to Delfina’s job as a cashier, Patricia’s job as a teacher paid significantly more and came with benefits that gave her retirement savings and health insurance. Patricia wasn’t living large, but her work hours did allow her to drop the kids off at school and be home prepping dinner before they returned. While she too was on her feet much of the day, she never worked nights or weekends. She never had her hours cut or her wages stolen. Patricia received child support from her ex-husband. She had more time to spend with her kids and more money to make use of that time the way she wanted than Delfina had.
Patricia’s resources meant she didn’t have to worry about her kids’ hunger the way Delfina did. That her kids would be full was a given. Indeed, never once did Patricia mention her children’s hunger or satiety as relevant concerns. Patricia’s resources also meant that she didn’t need to worry about the financial implications of wasted food. She didn’t love throwing food away, but if her daughters didn’t want to eat their broccoli, there were no serious economic consequences. Because of this, Patricia did not need to cater to her daughters’ preferences. Patricia’s financial security allowed her to turn any signs of her kids’ pickiness into what she called “teaching moments.”
“As a parent, everything you do is a teaching moment,” she told me, rolling up the sleeves of her flannel shirt and leaning forward to rest her elbows on the table.
Night after night, Patricia could put stalks of broccoli on her kids’ plates. It didn’t matter if her kids refused once, twice, or fifteen times. It didn’t matter if they tossed that broccoli into the trash can or onto the kitchen tiles. Patricia had the financial reserves to buy more. Running out of food or money was not an issue. Her kids’ pickiness, from a financial perspective, was irrelevant. It didn’t factor into her food purchases, and it didn’t stop her from trying to convince them—for the hundredth time—to eat their vegetables.
Teaching moments abounded in Patricia’s world. Whether it was how to read a nutrition label, scramble an egg, or exercise portion control, Patricia was always thinking about what lessons she could instill in her girls. She wanted to show them how to exercise self-restraint and control around food. She tried to teach them how to develop “better” tastes and overcome what she saw as inferior ones.
I thought of Delfina when Patricia started talking to me about salty snacks. Like Luis, Patricia’s daughters had come across Smart Snacks in school. They’d seen their friends buy the food industry’s school-approved potato chips and candy bars. And they’d come home to tell their mom that they wanted to eat Cheez-Its and Goldfish just like their classmates.
“I’m like, Oh my God, I don’t want to give my kids fishy crackers! ” Patricia exclaimed, remembering her horror at her kids’ request. “Especially not the red, blue, or green ones or whatever those are.”
Patricia didn’t want her girls ingesting food coloring and additives. She couldn’t bear the idea of that stuff making its way into their bodies. Patricia believed, as many affluent moms I spoke to did, in the importance of raising what the sociologists Kate Cairns, Josée Johnston, and Norah MacKendrick call the “organic child.” Raising an organic child means more than getting your kid to eat vegetables and fruits, although that’s essential. It also goes beyond choosing organic over conventional produce. Raising an organic kid is about so much more. It means making carefully calculated, informed, and often costly decisions about what goes into your child’s body. It means making baby food by hand, reading the fine print on labels, researching omega-3 to omega-6 ratios, and thinking about the plastic packaging encasing granola bars and milk cartons.
The ideal of feeding kids an organic diet has, over the past decade, become a kind of gold standard of healthy child rearing. This standard is generally communicated to and absorbed by moms across society, although it’s largely accomplished in full by only the most privileged. That is, it’s a mothering practice reserved almost exclusively for moms like Patricia and Julie. News media and public health initiatives target these moms to tell them it is their responsibility to protect their kids from an unsafe, risky, and contaminated food industry that puts artificial dye in crackers, infuses arsenic into baby food, and keeps kids’ palates from developing by packing children’s menus with cheeseburgers and French fries. Interestingly, moms today get the message that it is their job to safeguard their kids, not that it’s the state’s responsibility to regulate and monitor industry practices.
The organic-child ideal creates a major hoop for moms to jump through and a set of impossible standards that even the most privileged caregivers, like Patricia, feel they are at constant risk of falling short of. Patricia was always looking for ways to keep her growing girls in an organic bubble. She tried to find a healthier alternative to the conventional Cheez-Its, one that she could live with as a mom without depriving her kids. She researched online and in-store at Whole Foods. She read labels. She talked to her friends. Finally, she found a substitute that, although pricey, met the minimum criteria for her: Annie’s Cheddar Squares.
“It had natural coloring, organic cheddar, no hydrogenated oil,” Patricia said, breathing a sigh of relief. For that moment, Patricia felt good about how she had handled the Cheez-It dilemma. She had neither given in nor given up. She had transformed an unhealthy preference into a teaching moment.
Patricia worked hard to keep her home an organic bubble, safe from the food industry. She also saw her teaching moments paying off more and more. Sure, her kids still asked for things like Cheez-Its and Oreos. And yes, they still ordered pizza with their friends and got buttered popcorn at the movies. This was inevitable. But Patricia could tell that they now had an ingrained taste for nutritious foods like quinoa, salads, squash, and cashews. Rather than succumbing to her kids’ pickiness, she had flipped the script—she was making them picky for the right foods.
One of Patricia’s proudest moments happened when, as a last resort on a road trip, she swung by Taco Bell with her daughters. It was late, they were in the middle of nowhere, and everyone was hungry. Patricia acted out of desperation but worried that she would later pay the consequences of that decision. What if her girls loved fast food? What if they started asking for it non-stop? What if all of her years of hard work were undone with one bite?
“But,” Patricia said cheerfully as she told me the story, “they didn’t like the bean burrito! They didn’t like the taste. Not at all!” Patricia beamed at the memory of her kids actively rejecting fast food, registering it as proof of her own success. She recalled with pride how they’d tossed their half-eaten burritos in the parking lot’s trash can before getting back in the car.
As Patricia recounted her success story, I thought of Delfina. I thought of how differently this story would have played for Delfina—how bad she would have felt if Luis had wasted half his dinner. I thought of the frustration it would have caused her to see her son discard perfectly edible, satiating food that she’d worked hard to be able to buy. I thought of the financial stress she would have endured as she wondered whether she had enough money to get him something else. I thought about how Patricia’s proudest teaching moment was Delfina’s nightmare.
Essay excerpted with permission from How the Other Half Eats: The Untold Story of Food and Inequality in America © 2021 by Priya Fielding-Singh. Reproduced with permission of Little, Brown Spark.