In This Episode
DeRay, Kaya, and Myles cover the underreported news of the week—including new policies at St. Jude hospital, a fake landlord scandal, and a John Coltrane album gone platinum. DeRay interviews Dr. Priya Fielding-Singh about her new book How the Other Half Eats: The Untold Story of Food & Inequality in America.
DeRay Mckesson: Hey, this is DeRay. Welcome to Pod Save the People. In this episode, it’s me, Kyra and Myles, talking about all the news that you don’t know from the past week, the news that we think is important in terms of race, justice, equity. And then I talked to the one and only Dr. Priya Fielding-Singh, who’s the assistant professor in the Department of Family Consumer Studies at the University of Utah, and she wrote the book “How the Other Half Eats.” I learned a ton. You know, you’re going to hear some stuff about food deserts and some other stuff that like will be new to you, I believe. It was new to me. Thank you for joining us. I think you’ll learn a lot. My advice week is choose what chooses you. Choose what chooses you. If you’re the only one choosing, might not be the right place for you. I swear, you know, half the advice I give is advice to myself, so maybe I’m telling myself that. Choose what chooses you. Let’s go.
Kaya Henderson: And we’re back for another episode of Pod Save the People. Welcome family. It’s good to be here. De’Ara’s not with us today, so shout out to DeRay. In the meantime, I’m Kaya Henderson, @Hendersonkaya on Twitter.
Myles E. Johnson: I’m Myles E. Johnson @Rapture on Twitter and Instagram, spelled really funky, but if you find it, then it’s meant to be.
DeRay Mckesson: And this is DeRay, @deray on Twitter.
Kaya Henderson: So friends, this week a lot is happening, but we haven’t had a conversation about the Astroworld tragedy. The Travis Scott concert where nine people have died and a young boy is fighting for his life. And so thought that that might be an interesting conversation for us to have. What do you think about that?
DeRay Mckesson: Yeah, I will tell you, it’s been interesting to watch the conversation happen on the internet. Also, there are a couple of things that I think of. One is, I’m worried because I don’t want this to lead to the police being like, you know what, we should have festival patrols now, like a whole new wing of policing that’s like, we need to like amp up festivals. We need to do—like that, that, I think is not the response to this, to what happened there. I do think that security should be better, that like they should plan for it. Stampedes are not new, that there should have been more ambulances. But like trying to make sure that the response to this actually is not a more carceral response. The second thing is those videos of the people trying to alert the staff and the staff being like, no . . .
Kaya Henderson: Yeah. Disturbing.
DeRay Mckesson: It was just damning. I mean, that is, that was rough to watch. And like shout out to those people because it takes a lot of like just guts to be like, OK, I’m gonna go climb the thing, tell a cameraman, like, because, you know, it’s the right thing to do. And a lot of people in situations like that will probably talk to each other and be like, did you know that happ—but like, nobody would actually go up and try and stop the thing? And like those two people really did try their best. I heard another story that they were dragging people across to the VIP section so they could get help. There’s a woman who, she is unconscious, she becomes conscious, and then gives CPR to somebody else! I’m like, this just was, just chaos.
Myles E. Johnson: So I think that, like my first reaction is always kind of like to thinking of things like really subjectively and what I would do or what’s bad about it. But when I really sit back and think about it, I’m like, oh, this is one of those moments that I really do believe is going to change our relationship with the public and doing things in the public in performance spaces. I think that, I’m really interested in 10 or 20 years what festivals and these type of things are going to look like, mixed with COVID, the quarantining and COVID and this incident, I really think that there’s going to be era where we just do not do public space how we’ve always done public space. And I also think that again, this is more like a broader idea, but I think that it changes our relationship with celebrity. And I think that has always been changing. I think that we’ve seen that changing with the internet because celebrities are so close to us and we feel it’s so personal and they get to talk so much. And if you let someone talk so much, they are going to say something that is silly. They’re going to say something that, that kind of dims their light. And I think that we’re really as American, America because I really think that one of our top items that we produce for the world is culture, is celebrity. And I think that we’re really coming to the point where we have to look at the silliness and the ridiculous ness of it and when it gets this high of ridiculousness that it actually takes, takes lives and hurts people, I think it makes us for our view of what our relationship is with it. Because in the 80s, when it was Michael Jackson, it was kind of seen as a type of romantic and it was kind of like, oh my God, he’s such a great performer. But now it’s Travis Scott. And when people are fainting over Travis Scott and people are dying over Travis Scott, then it makes us review what is our relationship with celebrity and why during a pandemic was this even allowed? During a pandemic, because we’re still in it.
Kaya Henderson: And I think that this question around celebrity miles is super right. The big question around this whole thing, I mean, the tragedy of these nine people dying horrific. I actually also think that part of the challenge is that these cameramen and the staff people who are staffing the concert, they have to be held responsible. And I don’t think that we have ever really dealt with that. But the big question at the center of this is how are we going to hold Travis Scott responsible? Is he responsible? You know, he stopped and asked for help for somebody who was passed out, and then the concert continued for 40 minutes. His lawyers are saying he had no idea, the lights, the sound, the things in his ears, he had no idea what was happening. Somebody knew it was happening. People knew what was happening. And I think there’s going to be a question around, the big question is who’s responsible? How much is the artist responsible? How much are the people who were notified responsible? And how do we prevent this moving forward, is the thing. I also think it’s very interesting, and we sort of talked about this a little bit off line, what would this, what would the conversation be if this was a concert full of Black people? And the concert goers were not largely African-American but I think the way we even perceive this story might be different. So it’s a story that I’m watching, especially how the media is covering it.
Myles E. Johnson: Yeah, I think if we make it too personal, even though I think that’s just what we like to do in a binary society, is try to create heroes and villains because it makes us feel safer. I think if we tried to do that, then we failed the moment. There’s so many things that had to go wrong in the theoretical, how we consume things and celebrity culture, and the practical when it comes to security and the artist’s responsibility—so many things have to go wrong. So I just, I foresee in my crystal ball an era where we’re all going to speakeasies again.
Kaya Henderson: Not concerts, no more concerts. You think this is the end the concerts, Myles? Come on, just say it.
Myles E. Johnson: I really do. Or is going to get more ridiculous. Like, I think it’s either going to be the end or it can get more ridiculous. There’s going to be more moments where, you know, this kind of like moment of celebrity worship and I think we’re going to move from celebrity worship to artist exchange. And I think that the less mystique that’s around the artist, the more practical that will be. And I think more artists are going to want to do that. I think because Ariana Grande was a big deal. I think we forget about it because so many years in a pandemic makes it feels even more years, but there was a shooting at her concert. These things are happening, and I think we’re being asked to review how we consume, how we consume artists
Kaya Henderson: Sure, except that there is so much money tied up and this is how people make their money, right? There’s so much money tied up into these big events, and we see that the status quo pushes back and they will bury this stuff so that they can keep making money. I mean, it’ll be interesting. I thought that I was just going to, not going to concerts anymore because I’m a little older and I can’t tolerate the stuff so I want to be in a small venue where I have a guaranteed seat, preferably somewhere toward the front if I can afford it. And that’s how I like to consume my live music these days, and I just thought that was because I was an auntie. But you saying the whole game is about to change. I think this is going to be interesting.
DeRay Mckesson: I also think that one other thing is going to happen with celebrity is that you—and Myles you sort of hinted to this—is that we’ll see way more people willing and comfortable with pushing back, right? Who are saying like, I know you are the biggest artist da da da, but this is unsafe. I know that you are the da da da but we cannot do this, right? And I think that there are, you look at the Travis Scott thing, it’s like it didn’t strike me that some of the employees felt empowered to make a decision, to just like, unplug the thing or like—but it’s like, there has to be a point where you’re just like, yeah, I get it, I know you’re X, Y and Z AND this is not OK. And I think that we will see more people, I think we’ll see that shift happen.
Kaya Henderson: Let’s hope so.
DeRay Mckesson: Don’t go anywhere. More Pod Save the People is coming.
Myles E. Johnson: My news this week is that John Coltrane’s amazing album “A Love Supreme” went platinum. So I was almost named Coltrane. My name ended up being Myles, but I was almost named Coltrane. My dad is a huge jazz fan and A Love Supreme was one of those instrumental albums that was in our house. And what I love about it is that it always meant so much to me and I think that sometimes, specifically now, because the numbers and, you know, you post your thoughts online or you make your work or you put your art on Instagram, you look for what the numbers are—is that this work that really was transformative to so many people, not just sonically but musically, really transformed people and is just now getting to that kind of beloved platinum mark. Which, to me, feels like rebellious after 56 years. It feels rebellious to kind of like Black exceptionalism and tokenism, but it also feels like a honors in this interesting way what, like Black excellence is, which is slow and it is consistent and that it’s spiritual, and it’s not compromising for things that are like numbers. And I just was like, you know, felt hugged by it. I want to read a quote from it by his son, well, him and Alice Coltrane son, which Alice Coltrane is in her own right amazing. Ravi said, “We are thrilled and humbled to witness this incredible milestone in our father’s recorded legacy. I believe both John and Alice will be very proud of this achievement. We take great pride in knowing new generations continue to discover this album, and that music continues to speak to their souls.” I just want to Kamasi Washington concert. Everybody knows I’m a humongous fan of Robert Glasper, who I got to see three times this year, so far, in the last month. And then also, I got to, I’m a big Solange fan and Thundercat fan, and I really think about Alice Coltrane and John Coltrane and how their work has totally created a niche for a type of experimental and spiritualist Black expressionism that is still being expanded today and that is instinctual, that gets to be intuitive and gets to kind of just go around what’s happening right now. And I think that we can see the mark of that in so many different people. People who maybe don’t feel as easily connected, like Missy Elliott I think really takes from what John Coltrane was been able to do, and people who, like Thundercat and like Flying Lotus, who do feel like more obvious cousins or, you know, great grandchildren of what John Coltrane gets to do. The last thing around this news that I would like to say is, I hope that one day—I love that John Coltrane and Love Supreme is getting recognized in this way and this moment is happening—I think Alice Coltrane is such a significant figure. Everything that she’s offered Black music is just, it’s just amazing. She actually has the album by the same title that she made called A Love Supreme that is actually this experimental Sun Ra meets Indian music, like this tour de force, and I hope that one day we start embracing her as her own individual artist who not only made great art and great music, but was also one of the instrumental people in steering John Coltrane into the experimental music that he was doing. So he was always a fantastic jazz musician, but as far as adding spiritualism and this avant garde expression that he’s known for, Alice Coltrane was essential. And I can’t wait for a moment where we see the Black women in these men’s lives be just as appreciated and as adored and as respected and coveted as the male artist that they were associated with.
DeRay Mckesson: I had to do research on John Coltrane because I don’t know as much about jazz. I did see Glasper and PJ Morton in concert recently, and they were amazing. And one of the things that I loved in my sort of research on Coltrane was the story of the record Alabama that he recorded. So he recorded, he has a song called Alabama, and it appeared first on Live at Birdland in 1964. And it is an ode or reflection on the four little girls bombed in the church on September 15th, 1963. And it is recorded to be melodic to mimic Dr. King’s speech delivered in the church sanctuary. That was three days after the bombing. And the shift in the music is supposed to start from being one of mourning like his sermon, and then to leave with like, “we can win” sort of attitude. And it was just such a cool reminder that Black people have always used, our best artists have used music as a way to reflect the moment of protest, to highlight the need for Black people to have political power and the power to control their own lives. And to see Coltrane use his art to do this in such a beautiful way with jazz was really cool to learn in the process of preparing for today.
Kaya Henderson: Thanks for bringing us to the pod Myles. I was surprised, frankly, that A Love Supreme is just now going platinum. It seems like, well I didn’t grow up with parents who were jazz aficionados. I first discovered A Love Supreme through Spike Lee’s works. Maybe it was Mo’ Better Blues or one of those, but I literally remember hearing A Love Supreme in a Spike Lee movie, and I was like, I have to go get this CD. And literally just wore it out. I mean, I don’t think that you have to be a jazz head to appreciate what this music is able to do, how transformational it is. And I appreciate, one, I just think that it reminds me that our culture, you know, music, art, movies, whatever, podcasts, right—we open up new opportunities. There are going to be people who pick up A Love Supreme. I am going to go do some research on Alice Coltrane and get to know her music because of, you know, this medium. And so I’m appreciative of the fact that we make these connections and intersections. And I hope that we’re a way to bring new audiences to Coltrane. But it’s crazy that it’s just now going platinum 50-something years later.
Myles E. Johnson: Yeah. I kind of, because I notice counting albums and streams now and then counting records, in that 56 years, a lot of things have evolved. So I don’t know if they were just like this probably has already happened. But here I just think that the recognition was needed. I don’t know how, like if, something’s telling me that that has already happened, that happened way before the certification happened.
Kaya Henderson: Well, in Alice Coltrane’s home of Detroit, Michigan, things are not going so well with housing. In fact, in my news this week, NBC News and Outlier Media concluded a four-month investigation around a fake landlord scam in Detroit. They found that 1 in 10 tenants facing eviction in Detroit have been scammed by fake landlords. Since 2008, about 65,000 Detroiters have lost their homes, and there are tens of thousands of vacant properties because of the foreclosure crisis. Add to that the fact that there is discrimination in lending around housing, there are crumbling housing conditions in Detroit, limited access to banks and banking. And prices so low that reputable brokers stay away, that in a predominantly Black and low-income city, this creates the perfect storm for people to exploit these poor and low-income, these predominantly Black and low-income folks, by faking home sales. And so what happens, most people, in fact, who rent homes in Detroit, don’t know who owns the house they live in. There are these land contracts which are not appropriate deeds or legitimate property ownership materials and so things happen where fake property managers will sell you—”sell” in air quotes—you a house in a rent-to-own situation and you finally pay off the home and you find out that that person that you are paying the money to doesn’t own the home. All of the money that you have paid has gone into the ether, and you face eviction. This is what happened with June Walker, who battled back from a life of addiction, got herself together and was on a rent-to-own lease for $550 a month on a $15,000 house. Now, this wasn’t her dream home. In fact, the house that she was renting to own had no furnace, no water heater, no plumbing, and a basement filled with sewage. This lady was using candlelight, and drinking water out of water bottles because she didn’t have basic plumbing and electricity. Yet, and still, she scraped together $550 a month to pay $15,000 to a dude named Derek, who was referred to her by another dude named Maurice. And after it was all said and done, both Derek and Maurice disappeared and the company that was actually holding the deed to the property learned she was in the house and moved to evict her. A lot of times there are owners who’ve lost their homes to foreclosure, but they keep collecting rent from the tenants. And the terrible thing is that this continues to happen because people have gotten away with it without any penalty. There literally is nothing you can do when you can’t find the people. And in fact, the only laws technically that have been broken are when these fake landlords forge or file fake deeds with the county. But in fact, in 2019, there were 122 complaints of this happening, only 25 cases and only 14 convictions. And so we’re at a point in. Detroit, where most people say, you know, this is just how it is. In fact, when it happens, most people don’t even call the police. In this article, there was one young man who was put out of the house that he was renting to own, and he said he doesn’t, he didn’t call the police because he doesn’t trust the police. There’s one bank, the Land Bank, which is the largest property owner in the city, and they have dedicated one person to their land integrity unit. This is the unit that is supposed to investigate these cases. And so they are literally are, you know, thousands of people who are facing this, some of our most vulnerable citizens who are facing this very prevalent scam and there is no recourse whatsoever. This lady, June Walker, is about to go to court and she’s about to lose it all. The best she could hope for is that the owners will create a new opportunity for her to buy the house, but the $15,000 that she has saved and put towards the house is gone. Anika Goss, who is the head of a think tank called Detroit Future City, says we need a statewide system to stabilize housing in Detroit. For me, this is not about a lack of systems. It is in some respects. But this is about, this is a lack of will. There’s a lack of caring for poor people. This is a lack of caring for Black people. If this was happening in a white community, we would have shut this down, wrapped it up, found Derek and Maurice and everybody and their mother’s affiliated with these scams, and prosecuted them to the fullest extent of the law. And so to me, this is a case where all of these out-of-town landlords and people who don’t care about Detroit but who are making money off of Detroit could actually come together and work with the community, work with churches, with civic associations, to create a web and a network of people who can provide housing advice. Who can, I mean, we see all of these community housing organizations in other places and this, to me, is a case of us not caring about poor Black Detroiters. So I brought it to the pod because I feel like we need to know about this and advocate for our cousins and them in Detroit to get more assistance in terms of housing support.
DeRay Mckesson: I will say, you know, we at Campaign Zero are about to do some stuff on housing, and I thought I knew a lot and then you put this in and I’m like, did I read that right, that people are paying rent to people that don’t own the buildings and some of those people, it’s like a train of scamming. I think I’m like still trying to figure out how. You know, like, I’m like, who started this? Is it really true that there’s no repercussion, like outside of lying and forging, like, I feel like misrepresentation should be a crime, right? Like that feels like that should be a thing. You know, I think about all the philanthropists, it’s like somebody should come make these people whole because like, they truly didn’t like, literally you did nothing wrong. Like, you didn’t cut a corner, you didn’t try and get some deal that made no sense. And like, how would you not know? You know, like, I don’t know. I think I don’t even have much to say besides shocked, and like, thank you for bringing it here, and the organizer in me is going to go back and think through like what we can do to make sure this doesn’t happen to more people ever again, anywhere else. Because I don’t know, like it blows, it truly blows my mind.
Myles E. Johnson: The story reminded me, so I grew up in Georgia, and my mother, so this is early 2000s, my mother got one of those pretty like predatory home loans. And I experienced a foreclosure with my mother towards the end of like high school. And this kind of reminded me of that, where so many people, we were in the suburbs and so many of these kids from my, you know, the hood were able to get these, where like we were all in these like kind of suburban homes, and then we kind of all in maybe three or four years were all foreclosed on and kind of sharing this like shared trauma of a loss of home. And then also, it just brought it, when you were saying nobody did anything wrong, because I remember the extreme guilt, that this happens to bad people or somebody who’s mis-stepped. So it’s extreme guilt and shame that kind of possesses you. And how I’ve been really spending my whole, probably my whole twenties on reversing that guilt and shame and re-understanding that moment as something that was more systemic and national and global even, than it was personal. But it was my home. It was where I had my Play Station set up. So that took that took a long time to to process. And, you know, I might sound really naive or, you know, hopefully I’ll just sound radically utopian, but I do think there needs to be a time where we are able to give poor people places to stay, in homes, in not shelters, but just having those places to stay and having those places that are safe and communal and still giving them autonomy and sovereignty over where they stay. And it was interesting because a couple of friends who really got hit hard by the pandemic and they were behind on rent and stuff like that in New York rolled out this program where the person who’s tenant can apply, the landlord says, yes, this is true, you’re backed up on rent. And New York is sending things out. One of the landlords of my good friend who is having these problems got paid $35,000. So I’m like, so the resources are there, the money there, the imagination is not there. And the will is not there. So sometimes I feel like because, you know, I think about how much money things are, I’m like, oh, that’s a lot of money when we start talking billions and trillions and etc. I have to get to the point where I’m like, oh no, the money’s there. These things can happen. But the imagination and the will for it to happen is just not there. And for some reason, even though that’s disheartening in some ways, it also kind of gives me, kind of gives me a little bit of chutzpah around it because I’m like, oh, it’s not that we can’t do it, it’s that we don’t have the imagination to do it. So thank you for that. It was enlightening. As painful as it was to read, it was really enlightening, and it kind of made me revisit some of my early memories around that, and how intimate those political moments can be for people.
DeRay Mckesson: My news is about St. Jude. And this was sort of a thing on Twitter, but I wanted to bring it here, partly because I’m just, I’m always interested in what smart people have to say about these things. But St. Jude, we all know because they fundraise like nobody else. I’ve gotten a million St Jude emails and phone calls and da da da. And what ProPublica did was, was this really wide-ranging analysis of their budget and showed that last year they raised two billion dollars. And they are ranked as the 10th best children’s cancer hospital, but they raised more money than literally anybody. Like it’s incomparable how much money they raised. They have $5.2 billion in reserves, which is enough money to run that institution at the current levels for the next four and a half years without a single additional donation. About 400 of their employees are on the fundraising, in the fundraising sort of world. And, long story short, is what it goes into is what is not provided for. So obviously it covers the cancer treatment and the treatment for kids. But there, what ProPublica brings us into is this conversation about it doesn’t cover a host of other costs that families incur. So when you bring your kid to Memphis, to St. Jude, there are a lot of families that lose their income, that don’t have really a place to sleep, that you know, need to travel to go see, go back home to the other kids or do whatever, food—that they spend about $500 million on patient services, but it’s a huge I mean, they just they have a ton of money. And so there are a couple of things that I wanted to bring to the pod. The first is this conversation about how nonprofits service communities they service and like, what do we think people deserve? I’m interested in. The second is the idea of like, what does it mean to build institutions? And the third is, we should have more journalism like this. So the first, in terms of how do people service communities: I’m always interested in the way the nonprofit sector, especially places like this with so much money, it would take so little to provide housing for people. I mean, you could buy apartment buildings for—like you have so much money that you could actually be a landlord at this point, and it would probably be cheaper to have families live in the housing you own than give people a stipend or something like that. This type of wealth actually means that you could service all of these families at a really high-quality level with not a lot of money. I mean, you could do it really well, find the right people to do that. And since ProPublica has started asking questions, they have already dramatically shifted the way they do patient services. So that was interesting. The second is, you know, I think about so much of our work in organizing and around these issues is not to build an institution that lasts for a million years, but to solve a problem. And those are two completely different ways to think about this work. If you’re trying to build a thing that lasts forever, that is different than trying to build a thing that solves a problem. And when you think about this, it’s like, you know, they are trying to build a thing that lasts for a really long time, but it’s, you know, you save the kid’s life and then the family is bankrupt and has nowhere to go, it’s like that actually is, you know, not the biggest win that we could, we could give people. And the third is, you know, I think there are a lot of institutions like this like, you know, we’ve all seen the reporting about the Red Cross and da da da. There a lot of institutions that we should probably be pushing on a little bit more to think about their commitment to community. And I think that St. Jude gets away with people not asking questions because their core work is actually just so powerful. Yes, kids need treatment. Kids should be, kids and their family should be cared for, that we should make sure that kids have access to the best treatment possible AND we should service families the best way we can.
Kaya Henderson: It’s this problem that we treat people as having single issues. So maybe the predominant issue might be the child’s medical care, but there are a lot of attendant issues that go along with that. And so this idea that well, at least if I, you know, fix the medical issue, then that supports the family. If the family’s bankrupt and has lost their home and they’re sleeping in the car in the parking lot of the St. John’s, like people are not single-issue people. And so I mean, if we recognize the fact that even if the kid is healed medically, to be able to be healed emotionally, to be back with their family, to have a home to go back to—all of that matters. And to take on this in exorbitant cost of fixing the medical piece without fixing the other stuff just seems shortsighted. Or it feels, yeah, it feels shortsighted if I’m generous. When I left the public education system in Washington, D.C., I was very clear that I would never just work on education alone. Education, health care, housing, jobs—those four things are inextricably linked. And even if I give kids an amazing education, if their family is job-insecure, if they’re food insecure, or they don’t have health care, their education goes right out the window. And so I don’t understand why St. Jude’s wouldn’t understand, right? I think about Ronald McDonald House, which provides a place for families to stay, and they try to attend to a broader set of issues than just the medical issues. Even if St. Jude can’t do that, which apparently, as you know, Myles sort of pointed out, the resources are usually there, right? But even if they can’t, then partner with somebody who can, create a network of providers who can attend to that family as a whole. But to leave parents sleeping in the parking lot because only one parent gets to stay in the place when when the kid is undergoing medical care, it feels silly. It feels like we make arbitrary rules to, that actually are supposed to, you know, prevent waste, fraud, and abuse, and they end up hurting more people than they help. And I think if St. Jude’s has the imagination to raise $2 billion in a year, they can figure out how to support families in a much more holistic way.
Myles E. Johnson: Two billion dollars.
Kaya Henderson: Two billion dollars!
Myles E. Johnson: Yeah. Everything everybody said was just really my thoughts, exactly. But the only other thing is how grateful I am for journalism, because I think so often when people are, just have so much money and making so much money, there’s a, usually there is political temptation around everywhere and there’s nobody saying like, oh, let’s actually look and investigate and push this further and push this harder. I’ve gotten to work with a nonprofit called For the Girls, which is instrumental in helping Black trans folks get housing and then also affirmative surgery. And one of the biggest things that I’ve noticed, and I’m new to that to the nonprofit world, is how important it is to push further and to be self-critical and to accept critiques and to want to continue to expand. And I noticed that, like what St. Jude’s, it’s just one of those things like Jesus and Santa Claus thing too, this is just there, and I love whoever the journalist is. I’m blanking on their name, but I love that that journalist was like, I’m going to look into this thing that’s so associated with just goodness and helping, you know, cancer stricken kids get well, and be critical and maybe not take the most lovable role, but take a role that’s needed if they are going to expand into better working. Like DeRay said, they already are implementing these type of things because the gaze is on them now because of this article. And I think that’s the magic and beauty of good journalism.
Kaya Henderson: I just want to say one more thing. Like we talk about institutions, and institutions are full of people. I ran an institution that was largely seen, as you know, I guess, not attendant to the needs of our clients. And I think in the conversation that we were having earlier about employees being empowered to do the right thing, we’re all people. And so if we working in these institutions stop for a minute and said, is this how I want somebody to treat me, as opposed to trying to carry some kind of an institutional line? There was a quote here from what has to be like the communications director, that says “St. Jude has never promised anyone, neither patients nor the public in general, that it can solve all financial problems.” It came from a letter. Well, ain’t nobody say all of that, nobody asked St. Jude to solve everybody’s financial problems, but that’s what your coms director said to write. If that was you or your family member, how would you have wanted that organization to respond? How would you want to, like we have to start seeing each other as people and not as clients or stakeholders or institutions—people. And if you thought about how you wanted to be treated in this situation, you would come up with a very different approach than this institutional profile that you’re building for yourself. I’m not knocking St. Jude’s, they do amazing things. One of my good friends is an amazing doctor at St. Jude’s, and he’s found a cure for retinoblastoma or something like that. Yeah, right? Like these are the things that you only know when you have, like super smart friends—retinoblastoma, which is cancer of the eye inside the womb. And they they have financed his research to figure out how to end that, right? And at the same time, for all of the good that it’s doing, I am saying I would like us to be a critical friend. I think ProPublica is positioning itself as a critical friend to say, St. Jude, this is great and we can do better.
DeRay Mckesson: Hey, you’re listening to Pod Save the People. Don’t go anywhere. There’s more to come.
DeRay Mckesson, narrating: And now my conversation with Dr. Priya Fielding-Singh, assistant professor in the Department of Family Consumer Studies at University of Utah. She wrote the book “How the Other Half Eats.” Listen, listen, listen. Go get the book. It is wonderfully written from a story perspective, so it’s not just dense academic research, but the findings are truly, truly game-changing in terms of how we think about food, how we think about access, how we think about poverty—all the things. Here we go.
DeRay Mckesson: Dr. Fielding-Singh, thanks so much for joining us today on Pod Save the People.
Priya Fielding-Singh: Thanks so much for having me.
DeRay Mckesson: So I learned a lot in your book, “How the Other Half Eats.” I Have a lot of questions and as usual, excited to have you here because I get to learn about something that is not my work every day. But let’s start with you. How did you like, did you always know you wanted to be a professor? You know, in the book, you write about your early experiences with food, so I sort of know that a little bit, but how did you get to this as a field of study?
Priya Fielding-Singh: I’ve been interested in issues of inequality since I can really remember. When I was about nine years old, my family became a foster family. So for all of my middle and high school years, we took in kids from all around Arizona who had been, you know, just born into really difficult circumstances, who had to leave their their families and their homes for whatever reason. And for me, you know, growing up alongside my foster siblings, I felt like I was confronted continually with questions about inequality, about why we had been born into such different circumstances. Why even though we were in the same home for a number of months or years, we were also on really different trajectories simply by, you know, simply because of the fact that we had been born into really different places. So I was always interested in understanding how inequality shapes people’s lives. And when I got to grad school, I decided to study sociology because sociology is a discipline that basically obsessed with inequality and interested in understanding how broader structures and context and environment shape individual experiences. So I knew that that was, that was a discipline for me. And when I got to grad school, I found myself really drawn to studying issues around food and health. And I felt like a lot of the conversations that I saw around food and diet and nutrition were coming from folks in public health, in medicine, and had really interesting perspectives but I wanted to bring a sociological lens to those questions. And I wanted to bring also sociological methods to those questions. So I’m an ethnographer. I’m a person who likes to interview people, to spend time with people, observe what they do, try to connect to their kind of micro-experiences up to these broader macro-structures and forces. And so that’s what really drew me to the questions that are at the heart of my book, to the work that I do, and to the academy.
DeRay Mckesson: And now your book is different in the sense of like the way you structured it is a little different. So I want to just start there, because it is both narrative and then you highlight the families like that you talk to you. Can you just zoom out and talk to us about the design of both sort of the study that you did and the book? I feel like they come hand in hand, like you talk to families like you could have done a lot of things. Why did you make these choices, and can you help us understand the choices you did make?
Priya Fielding-Singh: Yeah, absolutely. So the first choice that I made was that I wanted to study food and diet by talking to people and not just sending them a survey or asking them, you know, ten minutes of questions. But I really wanted to jump into their lives and understand the role that food played, how they made food choices, and how the worlds that they were living in shaped those food choices. So that really shaped the design of the study. So I interviewed about 160 parents and children across race, across class. I wanted to understand how families in really different circumstances were navigating the food environment. And then from those interviews, I also chose four families to observe at length. So these families I spent months living alongside. And these families, these mothers in particular that I that I came to know just were raising their kids in such dramatically different circumstances. So, you know, on the lower end of the income spectrum was a mom named Naya, who was raising her family mostly on different forms of government assistance far, far below the poverty line, was really, really resource-constrained. All the way up to the [fourth] family, a white mother named Julie, who was raising her kids with kind of all the resources that one could wish to have in raising a family. And I wanted to understand how these dramatically different contexts within which moms are bringing up their kids, shaped how they thought about food for their kids and the challenges that they navigated in that. So the study was really kind of family-driven. It was about the stories and voices of people, and I knew that that was how I wanted to write the book too. I didn’t want to write a book that was totally driven by an argument and then had people’s experiences peppered in as like evidence of an argument. I wanted it to be the opposite. I wanted it to be the stories of families, the voices, their experiences, and then me coming in and saying, okay, how can we kind of zoom out and make sense of how these stories tell us something much broader about what’s going on within society? So, yeah, as you mentioned, the book is really narrative forward. I’m there, but in some ways I’m kind of chiming in to explain what’s happening. And what I hope that readers will really enjoy about the book is that it’s about the families. In some ways, it almost reads like a kind of novel, a book of fiction, but it’s all true. It’s based on people’s real experiences. And I wanted to write it in a way too that was engaging and that made people empathize and feel and think alongside these families.
DeRay Mckesson: Something you do that is so great for the reader is that I really did feel like I was learning with you. And the food desert a part of the book was one of those moments where you were like I thought it’s food deserts. And then it’s like, I’m like, maybe she doesn’t think it’s food deserts anymore? And I’m like, oh my God, food deserts! Can you, can you walk through what you learned about the idea of access to food being the key reason why people do or do not make healthy choices with the food that they consume or make for their families?
Priya Fielding-Singh: Yeah, absolutely. So yeah, I’m glad that you feel that way when you read the book, because it really was for me, a learning process, a process of discovery about what really shapes families food choices. And I was very much influenced by kind of the prevailing narrative of, um, you know, nutritional inequality, diet disparities, are caused by people’s differences in access to healthy food and in particular by food deserts. And for years, I would say, at least since 2010, food deserts have been the answer in public discourse to why we have nutritional inequality. And I know that because every single time that I mentioned my book to someone that I was writing about these topics, they would say, oh, you’re writing about food deserts. That’s like how much we’ve taken for granted that this is the answer. And so when I went into my research, I was really interested like, is it food access? Is it something else? And what I found and what kind of a lot of research that has come out over the last five or six years has shown is that while food deserts are real, while they do exist, they’re actually not the most important thing, they’re not the major driver of differences in dietary practices across the income spectrum between rich and poor. And there’s a few reasons for that. I think food deserts were a really exciting argument because, you know, as a sociologist, as someone who thinks about like kind of structural forces on our individual behaviors, food deserts took the blame off individuals, like off of individual parents trying to feed their kids, and they said, actually, it’s not about individual choices, it’s about the fact that some people have easier access to healthier food than others, and I find that argument appealing. But the problem is that the assumptions that went into the food desert argument have actually just not been borne out by the data. So one assumption, for instance, is that, you know, folks living in food deserts can only shop at gas stations, at convenience stores, because there aren’t a lot of supermarkets around. And so, you know, shopping at a gas station, there aren’t going to be, say, fruits and vegetables. But it turns out that in a really car-centric nation like ours, about 90% of people have access to a privately-owned vehicle, and about 90% of supermarket, of groceries are bought on trips made by cars. So and that holds true for people living in food deserts as well. Basically, what we’ve learned is that people are actually quite willing to drive for their groceries, and I saw this with the families that I interviewed, too. In fact, what I found was that low-income families in particular would often kind of carve out a few hours on the weekend and they would drive around to the supermarkets where they could get the best deals on food and that they weren’t constrained by what was within a mile of their home. They were really quite willing to travel because they wanted to stretch their dollars the furthest. And so I think we’re seeing that a lot of these assumptions that went into the food desert argument are just, they’re, they make sense, but they’re not actually true. And so what my book’s trying to do is say, OK, if it’s not just geographic access to food, what else goes into those food choices? How else can we think about or reframe what access to healthy food means in a way that is more closely aligned with how people shop for food, how they think about food, what their, with their actual perspective on food choices?
DeRay Mckesson: You suggested that across the families that you observed or interacted with, that there was more of a consensus around what was defined as healthy than you might have thought originally. I read that right, right?
Priya Fielding-Singh: Yeah. Yeah, you did. You did. And so I think sometimes there’s this portrayal, particularly of low-income parents, that they just don’t know what’s healthy for their kids, that they’re ignorant about nutritious choices, that they haven’t educated themselves. And I cannot overstate how incorrect that stereotype is. Like, there is not one mother who I spoke with who thought that soda or a bag of Cheetos was a nutritious choice for her child. Almost every parent that I spoke with agreed that in an ideal world, fruits and vegetables are the healthiest things that their kids can be eating. So, you know, there’s a lot of work also being done in the public health space around educating families, about educating parents but my work suggests that we can’t fix this through education because parents really do understand on the broadest level what their kids should be eating and what they should be feeding their kids in an ideal world. It’s not necessarily a question of knowledge or education. They’ll say, you know, there were differences of, you know, smaller differences in what parents defined as healthy, differences that were, you know, dictated by certain cultural traditions around food or, you know, different understandings of what healthy is, but there was more consensus than disagreement. The problem was more that some parents had the resources and time and money to realize that knowledge, whereas other parents were facing just extreme constraints that made it hard to act on the knowledge that they had that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables was the ideal one.
DeRay Mckesson: One of the things that you also mention that then I was like, OK, OK, let me ask Dr. Fielding-Singh, was this idea that wealthier moms had far more food-related rules. Even when people know what healthy is, they can’t not have Doritos in the house, right? And like, why do you think wealthier families have more food-related rules than not wealthy families?
Priya Fielding-Singh: So one thing that comes through in the research is that, you know, all families are really subject to the intense marketing and widespread availability of less healthy foods, whether it’s on social media, on TV, on billboards. The second that you walk into a supermarket, as you’re checking out at the at the register, there is just so much processed, less healthy food available, especially compared to healthier, fresh, unprocessed products. And a lot of that, a lot of that food is really heavily marketed towards moms in particular and towards their children. And so try as they might no mom was really able to kind of fully escape the food industry’s reach and feed their kid the way that they would have liked to. I found that wealthier moms were more devoted to regulating what their children had access to, what their kids were allowed to eat on a daily basis than lower-income moms. And it’s funny because when I talk to wealthier moms about the research, they say, well, we don’t have rules at home around food, but it’s just that they might not call them rules. They might call them, we have guidance around food, or—
DeRay Mckesson: Interesting.
Priya Fielding-Singh: —we have, you know, food habits or practices that we like to do, you know? But they are in essence, rules. They are guidelines that are enforced around what foods can and can’t be eaten. And the ability to have those rules and enforce those rules is really related to the context within which mothers are raising their kids more generally. So I write in the book a lot about how for lower-income moms, you know, raising their kids in poverty requires having to say no all the time because of extreme financial constraints. They have to say no to new clothes, new shoes, summer vacations, family trip. And in a context of repeated no’s, food is one of the few things that low-Income moms can pretty much always say yes to. They can almost always find like a buck at the bottom of a purse or under a sofa cushion, and saying yes to their kids’ request, buying their kid’s foods that they know are not the healthiest choices is a way that they can bring a smile to their child’s face every single day and show their kids that they, they hear them and they can actually honor their preferences, and that they’ll work hard to honor those preferences. And so in a context like that, having rules around who doesn’t really make a lot of sense. But if you look at the upper end of the income spectrum, for those moms, you know, they’re raising their kids in a context of yes. Like they’re able to say yes to so many things, whether it’s a new pair of jeans or private school or a school trip to Washington, D.C. And so in a context like that where you can say yes 100 times a day, saying no to food is a lot easier. It’s not as emotionally distressing for the mom or for the kid. And so in a context like that, having rules around food can make sense because you’re not using food necessarily to buffer your kids against scarcity. You’re using food to teach kids certain habits that you want them to have.
DeRay Mckesson: Yeah. So you write about how expensive it is to be poor. And I want to know how that impacts people’s relationship to food. I think it’s in that context of Naya where you’re like, you know, you see the money come in and on our hand and da da da. What does that mean for the food choices or the health choices?
Priya Fielding-Singh: Yeah, yeah. It means so much for the food choices. When you are living in a situation where you don’t know when you’re going to have money again, you know, for Naya, she always had someone coming around to take her money. Like she always had someone coming to collect her debt, a credit card company calling someone, asking to borrow 50 bucks, you know, needing to spend $70 to fix a car part. You know, the instability of her financial situation meant that when she had money, the best thing she could do was spend it on her kids. Like, she didn’t know if two or three days later, she would have the money to buy her kids a bag of Doritos. And you know, there’s a sociologist who I really admire named Allison Pugh, who writes about this. She called, she calls this practice windfall child rearing. And basically what she’s describing is that when low-Income parents come into small or large amounts of money, they can often treat it like a windfall because they’re not sure when they’ll have that money again. And so, you know, for Naya, I think people can read her choices as financially irresponsible. Like, oh, what if she just saved that 50 bucks? And, you know, over time that money would add up and maybe she would able to escape the grasp of poverty. But the fact of the matter is that that money was never going to stay with her. It was always going to fly out of her wallet for some reason. She was always going to have to spend it on some sort of emergency. And so within that broader context, spending, you know, two dollars on a can of Dr Pepper for her kids made perfect sense because if she didn’t spend it now, she might not have anything to give them for a week. And that, as a mother is just a completely unacceptable and demoralizing feeling. And moms will go to great lengths to not feel like they’re not loving, competent, caring caregivers. And so I think that that broader context really shapes what food means.
DeRay Mckesson: So there’s a lot more to talk about, and this is why people should buy the book because goodness, there’s a lot here. And you, it’s so clear that you spend time with families. Like this, it really pushed me to think about, you know, I was one of the food desert people. I’m like: food deserts! And then you’re like, just kidding. The two questions that we ask everybody. The first question is: what’s a piece of advice that you’ve gotten over the years that’s stuck with you?
Priya Fielding-Singh: The best piece of advice that I got when I was starting out my research, you know, no one thought that my research idea was a good idea. People in my department thought that it was a silly idea to study food, and I was not the kind of academic who got lots of external research support for my work. But I thought that there was something really interesting there. And my dissertation advisor, Tomas Jimenez, told me that the most important thing was to believe that that my intuition was onto something correct. And that really stuck with me and really propelled me through the work that I’ve done, knowing that even if other people haven’t initially seen the value in it, that my intuition is something that I can also trust. It’s, I have a sociological skillset, but I also have a sociological gut that drives me to study things that are interesting and to unearth something that other people haven’t necessarily thought to study. So that’s something that I appreciate having heard, and it’s something that I carry with me professionally through today.
DeRay Mckesson: And the last question is, what do you say to people who feel like they’ve done it all, right? They emailed, they called, they testified, they read your book, they read my book, and the world still hasn’t changed in the way they wanted it to. What do you say to those people?
Priya Fielding-Singh: I say that I hear your frustration and I feel angry a lot of the time, so I empathize with that viewpoint. I think that change can happen in really unexpected and unpredictable ways. You know, I think about the work that I do and the stuff that I study and something that I’ve been advocating for years is universal school meals for all kids. You know, the ability for children across society to be able to show up at their school, get two nutritious meals, and be able to not be hungry during the school day, to be able to focus on their studies—and this is an idea that has just been completely politically unfeasible in the United States for decades. But what the pandemic showed us was that something that was completely impossible actually became a reality. Like universal school meals were implemented during the pandemic, and now states like California and Maine are actually making that temporary change a permanent one. And so I find a lot of comfort in that. I find a lot of hope in that. There’s still so far that we need to go, but we need to keep fighting for the things that we care about, because even if they don’t seem possible, they might be, something might happen that might tip the scales towards change. And we need to be ready and we need to throw everything that we have behind those efforts when they present themselves.
DeRay Mckesson: Boom! Can you remind people of the title of the book and where they can get it?
Priya Fielding-Singh: Yeah. So the book is “How the Other Half Eats: the Untold Story of Food and Inequality in America. And the book is out November 16th. You can buy it anywhere books are sold, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, but I encourage you to support your local bookstore and pick it up there.
DeRay Mckesson: You’re the best. We consider you a friend of the pod and can’t wait to have you back.
Priya Fielding-Singh: Thank you so much for having me.
DeRay Mckesson: Well, that’s it. Thanks so much for tuning in to Pod Save the People this week. Tell your friends to check it out. Make sure to rate it wherever you get your podcasts, whether it’s Apple Podcasts or somewhere else. And we’ll see you next week.
Pod Save the People is a production of Crooked Media. It’s produced by Brock Wilbur and mixed by Bill Lancz. Our executive producers are Jessica Cordova Kramer and myself. Special thanks to our weekly contributors Kaya Henderson, De’Ara Balenger and Sam Sinyangwe.