Social class sways how unemployed people talk about food

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People who are unemployed may talk about food—or the lack of it—in different ways based on their social class, a new study reports.

What started as a survey of unemployment following the recession led researchers to discover that people often use food to describe their circumstances.

For example, “Cherry Blossom,” a 39-year-old woman worked as a hotel breakfast bar hostess around the start of the Great Recession. She lost her job, and three years later when talking about her struggles with her unemployment, she talked about her empty refrigerator.

Food language

In lower classes, those surveyed tended to think about food as survival; they experienced food insecurity, but rarely asked for food from family because of perceived stigmas. People from the middle classes tended to use language to “blur” their relationship with food, making it challenging for the listener to know if they were experiencing food insecurity. As a result, they were unlikely to gain access to food resources to address food insecurity.

People researchers interviewed in the upper classes, however, talked about food as a networking tool, rarely considering its physical necessity.

Given that food insecurity crosses social class boundaries during economic downturns, and given the variety of differing responses to food insecurity, policymakers should consider all demographics and socio-economic backgrounds when forming policies that affect food insecurity, according to the study, which appears in Communication Monographs.

“Food is the essence of social class—the way we talk about it, the way we think about it,” says Debbie Dougherty, professor of communication at the University of Missouri.

“We usually think about hunger as something that’s purely material, we also need to think about hunger as something communicative. Food discourses are embedded into the US culture and can reveal social and cultural capital. Our study revealed ways in which the food narrative shows the lived experiences of those experiencing unemployment,” Dougherty says.

Picture this

Using a method called Photovoice, researchers asked participants to take photos of their experiences to help explain and illustrate their unemployment. Those surveyed tend to become more active in the research process, and their photos offer another source of data.

The researchers collected data between 2012 and 2013, choosing participants from various demographic and socio-economic backgrounds. In their responses, 19 of 21 participants voluntarily spoke about food and food access. Several in lower and middle classes submitted photos of empty or barely stocked refrigerators, other talked of how difficult it could be to obtain food.

“What was surprising was those who were in the upper classes were good at obscuring their ‘food drama,'” Dougherty says. “The privilege this group of people previously had—that they thought of food only as a social or work function—made it so that they didn’t have to think about their lack of food—they tended to maintain the fantasy of their lives by taking their laptops to the coffee shop and feigning work. Surprisingly, these are the people who get lost in the shuffle in the discussion of food insecurity.”

Policymakers tend to think about food in regions—as a geographically related problem, Dougherty says. Dougherty and her team suggest that policymakers at local, state, and national levels should be addressing food insecurity as a more diffused problem that encompasses different classes and different neighborhoods in our towns and cities.

“Our economy generally runs in 8 to 10-year cycles, so when we have an economic downturn, we need to be thinking more widely about distribution of food as opposed to thinking about it in these geographically narrow spaces.”

Additional researchers are from the University of Kansas; California State University Channel Islands; and Humana.

Source: University of Missouri