Economic and Cultural Influences on Parents’ Food Decisions
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CitationDaniel, Caitlin. 2017. Economic and Cultural Influences on Parents’ Food Decisions. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractIn the United States, diet-related conditions including obesity and diabetes have risen across the socioeconomic spectrum, but low-income people are more likely to have diets that contribute to poor health. Using interviews and grocery-shopping observations, this dissertation compares how low-income parents and their higher-income peers decide what to feed their children, and it considers how these differences may contribute to health disparities. The food choices of low-income parents are not well understood. Public health research documents correlations between individuals’ diets and both their food access and their income, but this scholarship does not establish the underlying mechanisms of food choice. Social scientists highlight how people select food according to cultural constructions of its meaning, but inquiry into the symbolic aspects of food choice in low-income American families remains limited.
This dissertation examines how parents choose foods on the basis of both their economic resources and their ideas about food and family. Chapter 3 outlines how low-income caregivers evaluate the cost and value of food—what is affordable, what is pricey, and what warrants the extra expense. To ascertain whether healthy diets are affordable, food-cost studies use objective cost metrics, such as price per calorie. I show that low-income respondents evaluate the affordability of food according to other, more subjective criteria, including whether one’s children will consume the food and what it costs relative to plausible alternatives. While trying to economize in many areas, low-income parents sometimes spend more than “necessary” on foods that make their children happy, that buffer their children from deprivation, and that buoy their parental identity.
Chapter 4 shows how low-income parents avoid buying foods that their children might not like because food rejections erode scarce economic resources. Instead, these caregivers purchase what their children like, often highly palatable unhealthy foods. High-income respondents, in contrast, introduce new foods with little concern about the cost of waste. Existing diet-cost estimates exclude the food that children waste as they acquire new tastes. As a result, these calculations understate the true cost of providing children with a healthy diet.
Chapter 5 examines low-income parents’ seemingly irrational decision to buy bottled water, even absent safety concerns about tap water. Some researchers assert that buying bottled water can exacerbate health disparities by diverting money away from health-enhancing options. Low-income respondents buy bottled water in part because they see it as cheap. In contrast, higher-income respondents find it expensive. These evaluations diverge because respondents implicitly compare bottled water to their default drink: bottled water costs less than the sugar-sweetened beverages that low-income families often consume, but it costs more than the tap water that higher-income parents favor. This chapter bridges cultural sociology and behavioral economics by proposing the concept of “cultural anchoring.” According to behavioral economists, arbitrary information can influence, or anchor, people’s judgments. I show how anchors can vary across groups in ways that lead to divergent evaluations of food cost.
To close, I discuss how economic resources and cultural schemas influence parents’ food choice both additively and interactively. I highlight three types of interactive relationships: 1) the cultural constitution of economic judgments, 2) interdependence through budgetary depletion, and 3) the cultural delimitation of economically constrained options. This dissertation also suggests how to strengthen nutrition programming and policies, and how to increase public compassion for low-income families striving to nourish their children.
Citable link to this pagehttp://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:41140210
- FAS Theses and Dissertations 
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