My family, friends and the whole “This Is Uncomfortable” team have scarcely been able to enjoy a meal without me bringing up something I learned in Priya Fielding-Singh’s “How the Other Half Eats.”

Did you know that collard greens and kale are nutritionally equivalent (and the exact same species, Brassica oleracea), but racism and social stigma means only one of them is touted as a superfood? 

Fielding-Singh, a sociologist, interviewed 75 diverse families in the San Francisco Bay Area to get a big-picture view of how Americans feed their families and why there’s such a persistent nutritional gap between the rich and poor.

“How the Other Half Eats” culminates three years of research, but it’s not a dry or academic read. The book focuses on four families whom Fielding-Singh embedded with. They were such relatable characters, I could see myself shopping, cooking and eating with them, as Fielding-Singh did for weeks. She learned a lot about the symbolic value of food and the anxieties shared by mothers at all income levels.

I love how those personal stories ground the book, and it reminded me of the way our show tries to tackle big economic issues through intimate storytelling. I called up Fielding-Singh a few weeks ago to talk about all this. Here are edited excerpts of that conversation.

This Is Uncomfortable: How would you describe this book, for those who haven’t read it yet?

Priya Fielding-Singh: The motivation for the book for me was to look at this phenomenon of nutritional inequality. That is, the gap in diet quality between rich and poor. While we have a really firm grasp on the breadth of the issue — that is, how many people are affected by it, the dire and alarming consequences of this type of inequality — we have a much shallower understanding of how this inequality actually plays out in people’s lives. How do people make the difficult, complicated and even at times contradictory kinds of choices around food scale up to these broader inequalities? 

And so as a sociologist and as a qualitative researcher, I felt really motivated and well-poised to actually take that human-centered lens and to spend time with families, parents and children who were on the ground, doing that labor, doing that work, making those choices. A major goal of the book was to reveal just how difficult those choices are, and what they mean — at times in surprising ways — for how inequities play out on a larger scale.

TIU: Was there anything that really surprised you from the research?

Fielding-Singh: I think there’s this assumption that lower-income families don’t actually know what’s healthy, or don’t value healthy food, and I cannot overstate how incorrect that assumption is! Almost every single mother that I interviewed for this book wanted their child to eat a healthy diet, understood that a healthy diet was important for their child’s health and shared a broad understanding of what a healthy food was. And so, nutrition education is not the primary barrier here. The thing that surprised me was that mothers across the income spectrum actually approached feeding their kids in vastly different ways because of the symbolic meaning that food held to them.

Food doesn’t just have this physical material value to us, it also has this tremendous symbolic value to us. Like, what we eat is so deeply related to our position in society, which shapes what food means to us, how we use food to show love to others, to preserve tradition, to figure out who we are and what we care about, right?  

TIU: It seems like, from my reading, you set out to write one book about food inequality and then it ended up really becoming a project more specifically about mothers and food. Is that something you anticipated?

Fielding-Singh: No, I wanted to focus on families because of an interest in being able to understand both the feeding and the eating side of the equation. But a few months into doing interviews for this project, it became very clear to me that this was a study on the unspoken and often undervalued labor of mothers, and the role that mothers play, ideas of what good motherhood is, the way that food and nutrition are tied up in mothering and parenting. That was actually the story that needed to be told because that is the story that no one has been telling within the nutrition or public health space. Women who are doing this work and making these choices but also working to fit societal definitions of what it means to be a good mother. 

TIU: You write about “intensive mothering,” which is a term I wasn’t familiar with before. Can you explain that?  

Fielding-Singh: In the United States, we share really deeply held beliefs about what makes women good mothers, and sociologists refer to this as the ideology of intensive mothering. And this is a term that was coined in the 1990s by a sociologist named Sharon Hays to describe the unreasonable, unattainably high standards to which mothers are held in this country.

“Good moms” must act as their kids’ primary caregivers. It’s labor-intensive and it’s resource-demanding. “Good moms” are self-sacrificing, they put their kids’ needs before their own. And really importantly, “good moms” are generally depicted as white, married to men and affluent. And yet, despite being out of reach for most mothers in America, research shows that moms across society actually aspire to intensive mothering, that impossible standard. So moms look for avenues that they do have to feel like good mothers. 

So I found in my work that lower-income moms often used food for two purposes. First, they used it to emotionally nourish their children through hardship, to buffer their children against scarcity and adversity. But also, trying to prove to themselves that they were good mothers, that even in the face of deep poverty, they were still able to bring smiles to their children’s faces. And so that’s why I anchor a lot of the book on this concept of intensive mothering, because it’s so critical to understanding mothers’ actions and the ways that mothers across the income spectrum are doing the work of trying to love and care for their children through food.

TIU: In the book, one of the lower-income moms, Nyah, gives her kid money to go buy ice cream. That $2 is not going to pay off her credit card debt or help the family escape poverty, but it is going to make her daughter smile and make Nyah feel like a good mom. 

Fielding-Singh: Absolutely. And the thing that I observed so acutely when I was spending time with lower-income moms was that so much of their parenting experience is saying “no,” right? No to this, no to that. It is so emotionally distressing, both for children and for moms alike to have to say no all the time, over and over and over again. And so finding something that’s relatively affordable and produces this outsize impact on children’s happiness, that is gold. And that is what junk food is in this country.  

TIU: That reminds me, you wrote about all the ways that class impacts not just our diets, but also how we perceive other people’s diets. Can you explain that?

Fielding-Singh: Yeah, there is a double standard. So for wealthier, particularly white, mothers, if they are letting their kids eat, for instance, a bag of Cheetos, then it’s because we decide they’re not overly controlling. They’re being laid back, they’re being cool. So that’s a positive thing. But when lower-income moms do it, the assumption is they’re negligent, they’re careless. They’re ignorant about what their kid should be eating or they just don’t care or value it. So it’s really amazing how the exact same food can generate such a wildly different societal judgment.

TIU: I was really surprised in the book to learn that even the wealthiest, most privileged moms were still super-stressed out and feeling like they were underperforming or not doing enough to feed their families healthily. Why do you think that was the case?

Fielding-Singh: Yeah, that was really striking to me as well. I found that mothers across the income spectrum felt some degree of guilt or anxiety about how their kids were eating, and most mothers engaged in what sociologists call “emotion work” to try to alleviate that guilt. And so by “emotional work,” what I’m talking about is the internal work that every single one of us does to monitor, assess, inhibit or shape our emotions in particular ways. Emotional work is not just about trying to display the right emotions on the outside, it means actively trying to manage the ones that come up on the inside. So for instance, trying to change one’s feeling of disappointment into gratitude. 

But I found that mothers across income used really different strategies to shape their emotions that were determined by their socioeconomic positions. So lower-income mothers engaged in what I call downscaling, which describes essentially trying to push down feelings of guilt in an effort to come to terms and to make peace with their current realities. In contrast, higher-income moms often took the opposite approach and engaged in what I call upscaling, whereby they would ratchet up the already high and unattainable societal standards of intensive mothering and essentially escalate their feelings of guilt. 

And it made me realize that mothers across society share this crushing guilt; no mother is walking away from this labor unscathed. But also, we might think that more money, more time would grant someone the privilege of maybe not having to worry — it was actually quite the opposite. And that was really an interesting reflection of how money plays into diet in surprising ways.

TIU: Since you started on this project, you’ve become a mom yourself. I’m curious how this research may have shaped your own approach to feeding your child?Fielding-Singh: I think just seeing the degree of guilt and anxiety that mothers feel around food helped me go into this experience with a little more awareness and a little more perspective than I would have otherwise. And it gave me an appreciation of the resources that I do have, of the time that I have to devote to food work, and to approach it with as little guilt and stress as I could and to have a little bit more grace and appreciation with myself.

📚 Our next Uncomfortable Book Club pick 📚

In two weeks, we’ll talk with linguist, podcaster and past TIU guest Amanda Montell about her new book, “The Age of Magical Overthinking.” It’s a quick read that dovetails with the themes of self-improvement we explored last season. Have you read it? Send us your thoughts and we might include them in the convo!

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