For Low-Income Parents, Buying Junk Food for Kids Is About More Than Just Low Prices

Photo courtesy Gabrielle Tilley

Feeding a child is about more than just nutrition; it’s also a means of communicating love. Yet, for low-income parents, meals tend to involve fast food and processed snacks. It’s not that they lack knowledge on healthy eating, or that they don’t care about their child’s health. Rather, junk food is an affordable way to satisfy their child’s needs — and their wants.

For many foster parents, parental affection in the form of candy and soda on parent-child visits is a familiar occurrence.

“The consequence is you get a child back that’s high on sugar,” said Shawn Johnson, foster parent and board member of the National Foster Parent Association. He says it then becomes an issue of deciding how involved you want to get in regulating visits: “Should I step in and put my foot down? Or let it go — and deal with the behavioral side effects of sugar that evening?”

A new study from Stanford sheds light on why some parents choose to show love through fast food. After in-depth interviews with more than 160 parents and children up and down the income ladder, the author found that being able to indulge a child’s request might motivate poor parents to buy that can of soda more than affordability alone.

Researcher Priya Fielding-Singh conceived the study in part because of her own experience growing up in a home that fostered children.

“This early exposure to inequality got under my skin,” said Fielding-Singh. “Seeing the challenges that my foster siblings were facing made me want to better understand how poverty affects everything from our education to our health.”

Fielding-Singh set out to see what drives nutritional disparities between America’s rich and poor. To answer this question, she interviewed 74 families of different socioeconomic status (low, middle and high), then spent more than 100 hours observing the daily dietary habits of four individual families.

Parents of all socioeconomic statuses reported that their children made frequent requests for packaged snacks and fast food. And for good reason — those foods are scientifically engineered to be delicious and addicting. Furthermore, “Kids are seeing junk food everywhere” — at school, the checkout line, and in advertisements. “The prevalence of these foods makes kids think about and want them — and they bombard their parents with those cravings,” Fielding-Singh said.

But what separates low-income parents from those with higher incomes is the different means they have available to show their children that they are loved and cared for.

Having disposable income affords wealthy parents frequent opportunities to say, “yes,” to their children. One of the high-income families Fielding-Singh interviewed had their children enrolled in private school, dance classes, sports camps and volunteer organizations. But when it came to requests for junk food, which her kids made frequently, the mother would proudly say, “no,” viewing these as opportunities to instill values about restraint and delayed gratification.

But parental priorities change in the context of scarcity — as does food’s symbolic value.

In many of the low-income families Fielding-Singh met, their financial circumstances meant parents had to say “no” to their kids all the time. They couldn’t get them the private schools or dance classes.

As Nyah, a low-income single mother of two, put it, “I’m just trying to survive.”

In that context, food priorities become more about honoring children’s preferences; and junk food a symbol of love, rather than a tool for teaching self-control.

While accompanying the family on a grocery store run, Fielding-Singh watched Nyah oblige her daughters’ request for a 99-cent bag of Doritos and a $1.50 can of Dr. Pepper. Nyah knew these weren’t healthy choices, but she also knew they would make her kids happy.

“Parents and kids across the board had a broadly correct understanding of what healthy eating was. No parent who I spoke with thought soda was healthy,” Fielding-Singh said. But indulging these requests is one of the few tangible ways parents with limited income can demonstrate their love. This satisfies parents’ desire to give their kids not only what they need — but also what they want.

Reflecting on her willingness to spend the last $20 she had on whatever food her kids wanted one mother said, “They know I love them and that’s all that matters. So what? It’s food. I don’t care. If she wants a $2 candy bar, I get it for her if I have it.”

For foster youth and foster parents, food’s symbolic value can be even more potent, as food can be a source of comfort or a tool for control in an unstable world. That is why tying food to routine is an important step for foster families.

“Kids arrive with a taste for fast food, soda and snack foods,” said foster parent Shawn Johnson. In his experience the process of introducing new foods is difficult, both emotionally and physically. “The first few days they might refuse to eat, then they have headaches and stomach aches as their systems are purging, but after a couple of weeks their taste buds change to what you’re introducing,” Johnson said.

It’s during these first few weeks, however, that a parent-child visit can set back budding healthy habits.

When biological parents sprinkle visits with junk food, foster parents have three decisions to make: What to do with the snacks kids bring back home, how to deal with the sugar high (and eventual crash), and when to step in with regulations.

To address the first issue, Johnson keeps a candy jar where kids put all the sweets and snacks they collect on visits and holidays. Kids may access the jar at certain times, but Johnson says they tend to quickly lose interest. “The kid we have now, in four months has never asked for anything from it,” said Johnson.

Like with the candy jar system, Johnson stresses routine in dealing with the post-visit crash. “The next day we just focus on rebuilding their energy with routine,” said Johnson. But if kids regularly return from visits sick from a caffeine and sugar overload, that’s when Johnson will ask the caseworker to set rules, like just half a snickers or caffeine-free soda only.

He finds that parents are mostly receptive, especially when it’s understood that there are consequences. “You’re hurting them when you feed them so much sugar, it becomes hard to hold them responsible for their behavior,” Johnson said.

Because food is a source of nutrition, pleasure, comfort and love, managing a child’s eating habits is an extremely complex task. Given this complexity, Fielding-Singh urges parents to go easy on themselves. “How families eat is an ongoing process of negotiation, compromise and conflict. It’s unhelpful to lay all the responsibility on parents to control everything,” she said.

There are a number of environmental influences that are simply outside parental control. Schools for example, “have a tremendous opportunity to cultivate palettes for healthy food,” Fielding-Singh said. But if your school serves burgers and fries at lunchtime, that shapes a child’s vision of a meal. It shapes their preferences.

The findings of this study challenge the notion that low-income parents buy junk food for their kids just because it’s cheap, or because they don’t know better. The desire to give a child what they want might be the stronger motivation. This is cause for hope, because it means parents are interested in feeding kids the foods they crave. Knowing that, efforts to reshape a child’s palette are well placed, because they will in turn influence the kind of food parents buy.

Gabrielle Tilley
is an advocate for social change. Her work couples research with community engagement and multimedia production to advance food justice. Tilley is a recent graduate of the master of public policy program at University of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy.

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