The verdict is in: Food deserts don’t drive nutritional disparities in the United States the way we thought. Over the last decade, study after study has shown that differences in access to healthful food can’t fully explain why wealthy Americans consume a more healthful diet than poor Americans.
If food deserts aren’t to blame, then what is?
I’ve spent the better part of a decade working to answer this question. I interviewed 73 California families — more than 150 parents and kids — and spent more than 100 hours observing their daily dietary habits, tagging along to grocery stores and drive-through windows. My research suggests that families’ socioeconomic status affected not just their access to healthful food, but something even more fundamental: the meaning of food.
Most of the parents I interviewed — poor and affluent — wanted their kids to eat nutritious food and believed in the importance of a healthful diet.
But parents were also constantly bombarded with requests for junk food from their kids. Across households, children asked for foods high in sugar, salt and fat. They wanted Cheetos and Dr. Pepper, not broccoli and sweet potatoes. One mom echoed countless others when she told me that her kids “always want junk.”
While both wealthy and poor kids asked for junk food, the parents responded differently to these pleas.
An overwhelming majority of the wealthy parents told me that they routinely said “no” to requests for junk food. In 96 percent of high-income families, at least one parent reported that they regularly decline such requests.
Parents from poor families, however, almost always said “yes” to junk food. Only 13 percent of low-income families had a parent that reported regularly declining their kids’ requests.
One reason for this disparity is that kids’ food requests meant drastically different things to the parents.