When Sociology Ph.D. Candidate Priya Fielding-Singh traveled to New York last fall to present her research to the nonprofit Humanity in Action, she walked up to the front of the room to the sound of appreciative applause. Over a dozen board members of the organization read her report and were genuinely interested in her findings. This kind of grateful reaction is hard to come by in academia, which tends to be individualistic. “People will give you fantastic feedback, but they’re usually not invested in your work the way you’re invested in your work.” It became clear to Priya in that moment that she wanted to do work that people could actually use.
While working for Humanity in Action she identified people who were fervent activists in college and followed up with them a decade later to gauge their current involvement with similar issues. Surprisingly, she found that very few of the participants were still actively involved in the traditional activism of their earlier days. “People can care so deeply about something,” Priya realized, “and intentionally decide not to make it a priority.”
Priya’s current research focuses on this discrepancy between ideals and priorities in the context of food choices. She cares deeply about food. One of the most substantial diet changes she made was during college one summer when she stopped eating meat because of a lack of attractive meat options in the dining hall. When she realized that she didn’t miss eating meat and felt healthier, she chose to practice vegetarianism. Her journey to educate herself on food eventually took her to Germany, where she noticed a pride around cooking food there that seemed to be overshadowed by fast and convenient food in the United States. There are cultures around food that inform individuals’ food choices that eventually tie into the larger food system.
Priya then started to ask,“how can we get people care about food and to choose healthier food options?” Informed by the results of her work on social movements, she recognized that choosing healthy food is not always a simple question of caring about health. People can care deeply about issues without treating those issues as a priority. In the context of food, a bigger concern may be the accessibility of healthy options.
The next leg of Priya’s journey to influence food system reform involved an examination of the food options that are the easiest to access. Last summer, she was hired by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) to investigate the consequences of food availability on obesity and malnutrition. She combed through 30 different checkout aisles in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area to figure out how widespread junk food is. Her observations were predictable, yet powerful. About 90% of all of the food and drink items offered were unhealthy. Such easy access to unhealthy food options is overwhelmingly prevalent, a form of marketing, and a barrier to making healthy choices. For Priya, this kind of research is meaningful because of her personal enthusiasm for food system reform. “CSPI commissioned me to conduct this study with the intention of doing something with it,” Priya said, appreciating the immediate impact her results could have on educating consumers and encouraging policy changes.
“Food,” Priya told me, “is a means by which both advantage and disadvantage are simultaneously reproduced.” We can make healthy food the default, this solution won’t immediately ameliorate the underlying health inequalities. While some people have access over their lives to foods that promote health and longevity, others do not. In her dissertation, she maps the food landscapes of adolescents from different socioeconomic backgrounds by collecting data about what adolescents in the Bay Area eat at school and at home and deciphering how food choices are socially and socioeconomically produced. So far, she is disappointed in the limited number of healthy food options many high school students have. But it is this kind of research that she believes can raise awareness and effect meaningful change in food policy.
Priya wants more than to grow our collection of knowledge of social inequality and food systems. “I want people to take my research and use it to actually inform how they run an organization or how they craft policy.” In an ideal world, she wants everyone to care about how their food choices affect their health. But until that vision can become reality, she hopes to conduct research that can inspire action to reforming the current inequitable food system.