Skip to main content

Food Inequality

  • 62 Accesses


Studies of food and childhood offer critical insights into the unequal social systems that structure young people’s lives, with significant implications for their physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Food is at once deeply personal and fundamentally social: a reservoir of individual tastes, memories, and identities, and enmeshed in markets, institutions, and historically constituted relations of power. Children’s food lives take shape in a landscape of stark inequalities, including economic injustice, structural racism, and gendered care responsibilities and body pressures. These systemic issues deeply impact young people’s well-being yet are seldom acknowledged in dominant discourses of healthy eating that emphasize individual choice. Connected to understandings of self and culture, food is also a powerful resource in the everyday work of negotiating identities and forging connections through interactions with others.


That food is vital to a child’s...

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  • Best, A. (2017). Fast food kids: French fries, lunch lines and social ties. New York: NYU Press.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Biltekoff, C. (2013). Eating right in America: The cultural politics of food and health. Durham: Duke University Press.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Bowen, S., Brenton, J., & Elliott, S. (2019). Pressure cooker: Why homecooking won’t solve our problems and what we can do about it. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Brembeck, H., Johansson, B., Bergstrom, K., Engelbrektsson, P., Hillen, S., Jonsson, L., Karlsson, M., Ossiansson, E., & Shanahn, H. (2013). Exploring children’s foodscapes. Children’s Geographies, 11(1), 74–88.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Brones, A. (2018, May 7). Karen Washington: It’s not a food desert, it’s food apartheid. Guernica.

  • Brumberg, J. (2000). Fasting girls: The history of anorexia nervosa. New York: Vintage Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cairns, K. (2018). Relational foodwork: Young people and food insecurity. Children & Society, 32, 174–184.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Cairns, K., Johnston, J., & MacKendrick, N. (2013). Feeding the ‘organic child’: Mothering through ethical consumption. Journal of Consumer Culture, 13(2), 96–117.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • DeVault, M. (1991). Feeding the family: The social organization of caring as gendered work. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Elliott, S., & Bowen, S. (2018). Defending motherhood: Morality, responsibility, and double binds in feeding children. Journal of Marriage and Family, 80(2), 499–520.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Evans, B. (2010). Anticipating fatness: Childhood, affect and the pre-emptive ‘war on obesity. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 35, 21–38.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Fram, M. S., Frongillo, E. A., Jones, S., Williams, R. C., Burke, M. P., DeLoach, K. P., & Black, C. E. (2011). Children are aware of food insecurity and take responsibility for managing food resources. Journal of Nutrition, 141, 1114–1119.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Gaddis, J. (2019). The labor of lunch: Why we need real food and real jobs in American public schools. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gibson, K. E., & Dempsey, S. E. (2013). Make good choices, kid: Biopolitics of children’s bodies and school lunch reform. Children’s Geographies, 13, 44–58.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Kwate, N. O. A. (2008). Fried chicken and fresh apples: Racial segregation as a fundamental cause of fast food density in Black neighborhoods. Health & Place, 14(1), 32–44.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • MacKendrick, N., & Cairns, K. (2019). The polluted child and maternal responsibility in the US environmental health movement. Signs: A Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 44(2), 307–332.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Martin, M. A., & Lippert, A. M. (2012). Feeding her children, but risking her health: The intersection of gender, household food insecurity and obesity. Social Science & Medicine, 74, 1754–1764.

    Google Scholar 

  • Nukago, M. (2008). The underlife of kids’ school lunchtime: Negotiating ethnic boundaries and identity in school lunch exchange. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 37(3), 342–380.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • O’Connell, R., & Brannen, J. (2015). Families, food and work. London: Bloomsbury.

    Google Scholar 

  • Oncini, F. (2020). Cuisine, health and table manners: Food boundaries and forms of distinction among primary school children. Sociology, 54(3), 626–642.

    Google Scholar 

  • Pike, J., & Kelly, P. (2014). The moral geographies of children, young people and food: Beyond Jamie’s school dinners. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Reese, A. (2018). “We will not perish; we’re going to keep flourishing”: Race, food access, and geographies of self-reliance. Antipode, 50(2), 407–424.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Roberts, D. (2002). Shattered bonds: The color of child welfare. New York: Basic Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sbicca, J., & Myers, J. S. (2017). Food justice racial projects: Fighting neoliberalism from the bay to the big apple. Environmental Sociology, 3(1), 30–41.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Taylor, N. (2016). Schooled on fat: What teens tell us about gender, body image and obesity. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Waxman, E., Popkin, S. J., & Galvez, M. (2016). Bringing teens to the table: A focus on food security in America. A report by Feeding America and the Urban Institute. Available at [Accessed 1 February 2017].

  • Wills, W., & O’Connell, R. E. (2018). Children’s and young people’s food practices in contexts of poverty and inequality. Children & Society, 32(3), 169–254.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Kate Cairns .

Editor information

Editors and Affiliations

Section Editor information

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

Copyright information

© 2021 The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG

About this entry

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this entry

Cairns, K. (2021). Food Inequality. In: Lester, J.N., O'Reilly, M. (eds) The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Critical Perspectives on Mental Health. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

Download citation

  • DOI:

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Publisher Name: Palgrave Macmillan, Cham

  • Print ISBN: 978-3-030-12852-4

  • Online ISBN: 978-3-030-12852-4

  • eBook Packages: Springer Reference Behavioral Science and PsychologyReference Module Humanities and Social Sciences