Mothers in America are almost exclusively responsible for planning and buying food; preparing meals, snacks, and bag lunches; supervising their children’s nutrition, and encouraging them to develop desirable habits for healthful eating. Neither the fathers of the children nor the infrastructure of our country provide much support in this endeavor, according to Priya Fielding-Singh’s book How the Other Half Eats.
“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.” (p. 108-109)
Interviews with a number of mothers, representing many racial and ethnic groups and levels of wealth and poverty took place in the homes and cars and shopping areas where the subjects lived. Although the study was academic (for the author’s doctorate), the author was sympathetic and involved as she did the interviews, sometimes helping with food preparation, folding laundry, or other small household chores. She shared coffee and smoothies while talking about the way the women (and one man) described their ways of providing food for their families. The level of detail about the families in the study is fascinating, and makes for very interesting reading; a review or summary can’t do justice to the author’s skilled descriptions of what she learned about them.
The main message of the book is that every one of the mothers’ lives were fraught with tension over whether they were providing the right food, (and in the cases of poor women) enough food, and whether they should comply with the demands of all children for highly-advertised and craved industrial foods, or try to force the children to eat vegetables and other preferred nutrition. Richer women were regretful when they allowed children to eat junk food; poor women, it turned out, were happy to allow an occasional (or frequent) junk-food treat because they had no money to provide the many other amenities such as iPads, summer camp, private schools, and many other advantageous expenses.
When asked to compare themselves to other moms, the richer and poorer subjects provided a somewhat startling response. The poorer women gave examples of women who were even more needy than they were, and whose children were worse-off than theirs. The middle-class and upper-class women compared themselves unfavorably, believing that other children had better food habits or better attitudes and diets than their own children.
Every one of the subjects wanted their children to eat better than they did! She wrote about the richer subjects in her study:
“ I realized that affluent moms were able to upscale about their kids’ diets because of all the other things these moms didn’t have to worry about. They didn’t have to worry about their kids’ safety, shelter, or satiety. Privileged moms could take these basic needs for granted, which freed up mental energy and space to be concerned about other aspects of their children’s well-being, like their diets.” (p. 204)
And about a poorer subject:
“While unhoused, Ximena could not feed her youngest son, Juan, the way she wanted. ‘We eat in the street. We live in the street,’ she explained. Living in the street meant not having a kitchen to cook in or a fridge to store food. Eating in the street meant that she and Juan ate out almost every evening, mostly at fast-food chains like Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken.” (p. 208)
“There is, apparently, no correct way to feed a child. Society reminds moms that no matter what they do, there is always something they should be doing better, from reducing their kids’ sugar intake to expanding their palates to avoiding formula. Moms are expected to achieve the impossible: ward off a predatory food industry, prepare healthy homemade meals, and follow ever-evolving nutritional advice. On top of all that, they are expected to enjoy doing it! Moms are supposed to embrace being on the hook for their children’s intake and accept responsibility for how that intake shapes their kids’ bodies. Moms shouldn’t mind that others use their kids as central sources of feedback about their maternal worth. What’s more, moms should be thankful for the feedback, even though it is most often used to reveal to them their inadequacies and shortcomings.” (p. 265)
Author and researcher Priya Fielding-Singh, in How the Other Half Eats has created a really interesting look at our society and how mothers and children react about food issues. While I found it difficult to get started reading this book, after a few chapters I found it totally fascinating, not because every insight was new or unusual, but because the details of individual mothers and their children were so clarifying of the many food stories that constantly appear in the press. The author’s insights about the way that poor mothers use junk food as the only reward they can give their children, despite a robust understanding of what’s wrong with junk food, were especially impressive.
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