Socioeconomic status and food: A Stanford researcher observed families to learn more

Photo courtesy of Priya Fielding-Singh

Priya Fielding-Singh, a PhD candidate in sociology at Stanford, wanted to learn more about the relationship between socioeconomic status and diet. So she made observations and conducted in-depth interviews with parents and adolescents from 73 families across the socioeconomic spectrum throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. I recently spoke with her to learn about her study.

What inspired you to research the relationship between socioeconomic status and diet?

“Growing up, my family was a foster family and we took in many children that came from impoverished backgrounds. I think this early exposure to social inequality was formative in shaping my interests and propelling me into the field of sociology. I became interested in food the more that I learned about diet and disease prevention.

We have excellent large-scale, quantitative studies that show a socioeconomic gradient in diet quality in the United States. Thus, we know that socioeconomic status is one of a few key determinants of what and how people eat. But what we understand less well is why. I wanted to know: how do people’s socioeconomic conditions shape the way that they think about and consume food?”

How did you obtain your data?

“In almost every family, I interviewed, separately, at least one parent and one adolescent to better understand both family members’ perspectives. I also conducted 100 hours of observations with families across socioeconomic status, where I spent months with each family and went about daily life with them.

I saw very clearly that food choices are shaped by myriad different external and internal influences that I only gained exposure to when I spent hours with families on trips to supermarkets, birthday parties, church services, nail salons and back-to-school nights. Importantly, I was able to collect data on family members’ exchanges around food, including discussions and arguments. What families eat is often the product of negotiations and compromises.”

What was it like to observe the family dynamics first-hand?

 “I’m a very curious person, as well as a people person, so I felt in my element conducting ethnographic observations. I was touched by how generously families welcomed me into their lives and shared their experiences with me. Because families were so open with me — and in many cases, did not attempt to shelter me from the challenging aspects of family life — observations were an incredibly illuminative part of the research.”

Based on your study, how is diet transmitted from parents to children?

“I found that parents play a central role in shaping teenagers’ beliefs around food, but there was often a difference in how adolescents perceived their mothers and fathers in relation to diet. Adolescents generally saw their mothers as the healthy parent and their fathers as less invested in healthy eating. So, feeding families and monitoring the dietary health of families largely remains moms’ job, as I explained in a recent article.

In addition, I found that how mothers talked to adolescents about food varied across socioeconomic status. My Stanford colleague, Jennifer Wang, and I wrote a paper explaining these differences. More affluent families had discussions that highlighted the importance of consuming high quality food, which may strengthen messages about healthy eating. In contrast, less privileged families had more discussions about the price of food that highlighted the unaffordability of healthy eating.

Finally, I found that lower-income parents sometimes used food to buffer their children against the hardships of life in poverty. They often had to deny their children’s requests for bigger purchases because those purchases were out of financial reach, but they had enough money to say yes to their kids’ food requests. So low-income parents used food to nourish their children physically, but they also used food to nourish their children emotionally.”

What were your favorite foods as a child?

“My favorite food growing up is the same as my favorite food today: ice cream. Beyond that, the diet I ate as a child was very different than the one I follow now. I grew up in a family of carnivores, but I became a vegetarian in my early 20s and never looked back.”

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

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