Caitlin Bradley Morgan
This article is a narrative investigation of food agency—one’s relative ability to navigate systems, structures, and preferences in daily meals—in the low-income neighborhood of Mantua in West Philadelphia. The stories of four women in Mantua, with high personal standards and aspirations for the quality of their daily meals, reveal what it is like for them to care about food while restricted by economic and environmental structures. They think in highly systemic ways, balancing competing desires, needs, and restrictions. Personal skill (such as cooking, gardening, and strategic shopping) emerges as their primary method for dealing with unsupportive structures, although in extreme circumstances those skills are not enough. Time scarcity, a common challenge in many people’s experiences of cooking, is mostly tied to how difficult it is to access groceries without a personal car or suitable public transportation. The pleasure of eating good food is a key driver for their actions. In some cases, pleasure is an experience to that requires negotiation, a reason to both choose and avoid certain foods. Traditional food practices function as a template for daily food actions, providing guidance for how to eat both healthily and joyfully despite restrictions stemming from one’s social environment.
In the summer of 2015, I traveled from Vermont to Pennsylvania to speak with a group of people about how they source and cook food in their daily lives. I observed a 10-week course on healthy cooking techniques, where half of the participants were students at Drexel University and the other half were community residents of the neighborhood Mantua. The purpose of the research was to expand what we know about “food agency,” a relatively new conceptualization on a person’s ability to procure and prepare the foods that they want while variously supported, restricted, and influenced by the physical and socioeconomic structures of their life. [i] Previous qualitative work on food agency took place in Burlington, VT, with participants from a relatively rural, affluent, educated, and majority white community.[ii] That study’s participants had numerous places to source food, such as multiple grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and CSA farm shares. The research resulted in a metric of food agency, known as the Cooking Action and Food Provisioning Scale, which was tested and validated with a much more diverse pool of online participants from across the U.S. It aggregates sub-measurements of people’s attitude, self-efficacy, and structural components to their food actions into one numerical score [iii] I hypothesized that the setting of that initial research had influenced the how we understand and measure food agency.
Mantua is quite different from Burlington, and its residents therefore have a different set of contexts in which they enact food agency. In 2014, Mantua was designated a “Promise Zone” by President Obama, indicating an area with both great need and potential for economic revitalization. The neighborhood has a long history of community involvement and strong social networks. It also struggles with a poverty rate over 50%, twice that of Philadelphia as a whole, [iv] high housing vacancy, violent crime, and low education levels. [v] Unlike Burlington, the residents are majority Black. Mantua has been without a large grocery store for over twenty years and is classified as a “food desert” by the USDA, a place in which at least a third of residents live a mile or more from a supermarket.[vi] The designation is relevant for how far residents have to travel to access their desired groceries; research has shown that residents of Mantua travel to procure most of their food from supermarkets outside of their neighborhood.[vii] Food insecurity is an issue across the city. Hunger rose in Philadelphia before the COVID-19 pandemic, when it was falling across the country.[viii] Since then, the pandemic has wrought long-term damage to community health, with nationwide food insecurity rates tripling in 2020.[ix] Black Philadelphians experience higher rates of diet-related disease and lower rates of healthy food access than any other group of city residents.[x]
The pandemic magnified existing realities and vulnerabilities in the food system, especially for low-income Americans. Before this more acute stage of an ongoing public health crisis, I wanted to know if the theoretical and scalar understandings of food agency reflected people’s realities in Philadelphia, as observed in Burlington. I wanted to ensure that how we captured people’s negotiated daily choices was inclusive of societal structures. To explore this, I sat down with a majority of participants twice, once at the beginning of the ten-week course, and then again six months later, to hear their reflections on the course and on food in their day-to-day lives.
To understand food agency is to see clearly what happens at the intersection of individual and environment. Although agency is understood at the individual level, it also accounts for factors that support, restrict, and influence individual behavior. Recent scholarship categorizes aspects of individual food agency as 1) self-efficacy, the self-perception of ability to source and cook food, including how skilled one feels as a cook, 2) food attitude, how one feels about food and cooking, and 3) structure, the non-food aspects of life that influence food provisioning, including time constraints and family preferences.[xi] The personal experience of foodways is complex and includes developing, negotiating, and balancing values regarding food choices, which can include taste, convenience, cost, health, and personal and community relationships. Moreover, one needs to develop strategies and routines to enact those values.[xii] In short, food agency “emerges from the complex interplay of individual technical skills [such as ease of cooking] and cognitive capacities with social and cultural supports and barriers.” [xiii]
This paper employs narrative analysis to illuminate deeper aspects of food agency for these participants. Narrative analysis provides opportunity to investigate phenomena that are difficult to describe and quantify,[xiv] like people’s food agency. It also allows for a critical context and elucidation of a research subject, in this case food agency, by bringing participants’ rich realities into conversation with broad constructs or quantitative understandings. [xv] This article relies on narrative both as the source of data and as the method of analysis, revealing important aspects of participants’ agency. This narrative approach is critical for developing a food agency lens, adding necessary nuance and detail to match the initial research undertaken in Vermont. While narrative is shaped by context, it can also itself shape context, through the articulation of novel understandings.[xvi] It is my hope that examining and relaying these narratives will offer a new view that can help shape the way we understand food access in relation to different motivations and circumstances that are tied to people’s everyday realities. As a researcher, I must acknowledge—reflecting on the importance of subjectivity in narrative[xvii]—that I am not a part of the community that these participants belong to. I am a white, economically privileged, highly educated person who has lived primarily in Vermont and California and never in a neighborhood with a high concentration of poverty. I have done my best to accurately recount the details shared with me and note where my own perspective may limit my understanding of their significance.
Among the thirteen people I interviewed about their daily food choices and actions, the conversations with four women of color stand out. Their stories paint a complex, vital picture of what it is like to be poor and to care about one’s food choices. Their stories emphasize preoccupations about quality, health, and tradition, considerations often left out of mainstream depictions of low-income shoppers and eaters. Although there is increasing evidence countering stereotypes that poor people eat more “junk food” than wealthier people,[xviii] such negative and often racialized stereotypes persist and influence policy directed at low-income and food-insecure Americans.[xix] Health is strongly influenced by social determinants, however, not just individualized choices. Barriers to health equity across demographics are systemic, due to an interplay of different life factors linked to a long history of institutionalized discrimination.[xx]
A deep look at the stories of these participants reveals details about how and why they choose, access, and prepare foods. These stories provide insight into the factors that support and constrain food agency in a context where structural barriers are high. The paper focuses on four low-income women participants of color from Mantua. The rich detail of their stories uncovers critical, unmeasured aspects of food agency. First, Anjanette, whose daily food choices were marked by internal conflicts between sensory, taste-based pleasure and health concerns, who was dissatisfied with the quality of food available to her compared with what exists in more agrarian landscapes. Second, Geena, who was living without a kitchen but could not afford prepared food, bought one meal a day to maximize for quality and nourishment. Third, Annie, an immigrant who struggled with an American diet and found freedom in sourcing food from her community garden plot. And finally, Francine, a highly engaged, self-taught home cook who felt excluded from a broader culture of cooking through the formal structures of culinary education and vocabulary. More detailed insights are embedded in the following vignettes, which I elaborate upon in the subsequent discussion section.
Anjanette eats simply, on a schedule she says, “like Benjamin Franklin.” But not just for survival: the woman loves food. Some of the food she remembers is from growing up in the summers on her grandmother’s North Carolina farm, some she makes as part of her daily routine, and some she dreams about eating. During the first hour of our discussion, she specifically mentioned fresh fruit, peanuts, walnuts, pecans, grapes, berries, bean soups, grains, collards, turnips, kale, spinach, “all types of greens,” fresh lemonade, sun tea, fried sweet potatoes, homemade dressing, succotash tomatoes (at this point, we’re only five minutes into the interview, with initial questions that did not focus on particular dishes), home-smoked meat, sweet bread, blackberry cobbler, preserves, watermelon, preserved watermelon rinds, biscuits, molasses, fig preserves, fresh figs, potatoes, olive oil, salad, popsicles from Trader Joe’s, salsa, chips, cookies, raisins, prunes, Gala apples, quinoa flakes cereal, oatmeal, steel cut oatmeal, Healthy O’s, yogurt-dipped raisins, frozen kale and spinach and collards, red and white cabbage, blackened chicken wings and “dirt” pudding from Amish food stands, natural strawberry lemonade, pre-cut pineapple, cantaloupe, honeydew, strawberries, blueberries, lentils, split pea soup, Goya beans, pre-chopped onions and peppers, brown rice, “my favorite, the Roma tomatoes,” smoked turkey, Bush’s vegetarian beans (“delicious”), Romaine lettuce, cucumbers, onions (“don’t axe me if they’re white or yellow”), fried fish, fried chicken, bread (“I’m not really a bread eater”), oranges, water, baked chicken, tuna, marinades, raw foods, apricots, kale chips, zucchini chips, snacks (“one of the hardest times to be healthy, because there’s not many healthy ones”), fried squash, raw celery, meat rubs, lemon garlic vinaigrette, grilled salmon, and Mrs. Dash lemon pepper. There is not space here to include everything from our second conversation, which started immediately with a description of homemade bruschetta she took to her co-workers. In short, she is highly and sensorially involved in thinking about the kinds of food she likes, dislikes, and feels the need to either seek out or avoid.
Anjanette takes her responsibility to eat well seriously, while dealing with the realities that turn that duty into a struggle. Health anxieties taint an otherwise intense pleasure derived from eating. She took a cooking class for self-improvement: “I have to cook,” she tells me, “because if I don’t cook, I will eat junk food…The goal is to eat healthy and not over-do it.” She has made many changes in her diet to mitigate issues with blood pressure, heart disease, and obesity. Even healthy foods must taste good and meet her standards, and her displeasure with what nearby stores offer means she must spend much more time on procuring food. “I don’t like these neighborhood stores, so I have to travel [to other parts of the city]. The quality is better.”
Compared with other community members in the cooking class, Anjanette is better off financially, but that doesn’t mean she feels especially empowered. She feels she had only a middling amount of food agency, estimating it as 5 out of 10. “It’s time and expense, time and money. Cuz you might go in the market, you see that beautiful piece of salmon. Then you look in your pocket.” Her words underscore other research concluding that the main driver of insufficiently nutritious food is more likely to be money than whether someone is a skilled cook,[xxi] as the expense of nutrient-rich foods and environmental factors are primary barriers to good nutrition.[xxii]
These findings illustrate how structural challenges such as poverty can undermine people’s agency and sense of self-efficacy. However, while a lack of money affects Anjanette’s access to quality food in multiple ways, it does not cause her to lower her standards when it comes to eating healthy food. Her most vivid descriptions are of her grandmother’s farm, which was rich, not in money, but in food. The farm was “poor, you know, so they…grew everything.” Her grandma, “had some very good eating habits,” eating lots of raw vegetables.
Overall, Anjanette is optimistic even in the face of frustrations. During her second interview, she gushed about the healthy cooking class: “It’s just wonderful how we’re being taught, and even at my age, it still is a great advantage, because I can change.”
Geena owns her own home in Mantua, which, rather than providing stability, contributes to her food-related problems. She works in education for special needs children, but cannot afford to fix a leaking roof, and as a result the electricity has been shut off – she had been living without electricity for over six months when we met the second time and was afraid her ceiling was going to collapse. Unable to cook at home or afford three high-quality prepared meals per day, she budgets her food in terms of hours before bed to reduce feelings of hunger during the night. Without electricity, Geena has lost her agency over the kind of food she eats, a thing she thinks and reads about obsessively.
Geena has a wealth of food information and experiences. She speaks of assembling, rather than preparing, what would be her favorite dinner:
I’ve tasted things at different places…this rainbow kale salad from Whole Foods…chicken [prepared in the healthy cooking course], that was wonderful, because it was juicy, you know…if I had a nice steak that was tender, and moist, and juicy when you bit into it, the juice just oozed out of it. You know what I mean? Looking for the experience also when you eat it.
Like Anjanette, she has strong aspirations for both the health and pleasure of her meals.
Geena thinks strategically about both the entire food system and her own physiological system, jumping and interweaving across scales from personal goals to system-wide trends. As a Black American, Geena has statistically higher vulnerability to diet-related disease, and she has made concessions like cutting out salt to avoid high blood pressure. Every decision has a ripple effect, however. Avoiding table salt means risking low iodine; she could eat seaweed but has read that it can be high in arsenic. She deals with uncertainty by spreading risk around in her diet and eating everything “in moderation…cuz even the so-called ‘good food’ can kill you if you eat too much of it,” she laughs. For example, she will try new foods “because of the novelty” of taste and the enjoyment of experience, but she won’t eat them again if their ingredients are suspect. There is a new ice cream at the supermarket that she was excited to try because it comes in “all the flavors that Southern Blacks used to eat. The sweet potato pie, the praline, peach, strawberry shortcake. But then I read the ingredients,” which include milk powder, “and I just read something negative about milk powder being one of the 10 most adulterated foods, so it might have poison in it. Thinking about melamine and the thing that happened in China.” She wonders aloud if supermarkets are “in cahoots” with medical professionals to keep people sick. Although this suspicion might seem extreme, it makes sense given of the difficulties she experiences while trying to live healthily. For her, there are pressures and pitfalls on all sides.
Geena explicitly sees her foodways in the context of Black history, racial oppression, globalization, religious teachings, and popular science articles published in magazines and on the internet. She uses this context to orient her observations of her own bodily experience and evolves her practice of planning and provisioning meals. Over the course of many years since college, she practiced vegetarianism where she learned about B vitamins, went to a “natural doctor,” and began believing in the mantra that “healthy” means “heal thyself” with food. She read about Southern slave food traditions as primarily vegetable-based, learned about vitamins in fresh foods, and rejected “rich” (high in animal fat) foods as ultimately poor in nutrition. She compared religious teaching about meat to nutritional teachings, read about Mongolians and vegetarian cultures being physically smaller in stature, began to eat small amounts of meat again, read more, and continues to “tweak the diet.” Her approach is to continuously change her habits, informed by new knowledge.
In other words, Geena is navigating a complicated food system as a highly engaged lay person, gathering information to guard her health, and assiduously investigating anything she puts into her body. She balances her own sensory curiosity, personal links to African American culinary heritage, her knowledge of food safety, her need to eat, and her awareness that the system is not necessarily promoting her best interests. With that awareness comes frustration over the intense personal implications caused by large economic market structures. People’s health problems, she believes, are largely influenced by what they eat, and she has no illusions about what gets in the way of healthy eating:
…what drives it is profit… you don’t even know until it affects you personally. …put yourself in that old person’s shoes and walk it for a little while. And then you’ll understand what we’re all talking about. We’re not crazy.…[We] see it.
For Geena, this is a daily and embodied negotiation with risk. She cannot eat as well or as much as she needs.
Despite only being able to afford eating one quality meal per day, Geena doesn’t rely on many food safety nets; as she does not trust that they help. Soup kitchens, for instance, serve food that she sees as sub-par, too different from her own diet, and that might make her ill. One of the ways Geena enacts her food agency is by choosing not to source foods she feels will make her sick, sometimes at the expense of her overall caloric intake.[xxiii] Healthy food access solutions for Mantua might not serve Geena if they were the traditional ideas, like a grocery store, where prepared foods are still prohibitively expensive for her, or were more emergency food, which would not meet her standards for health.
Similarly, more education and newer dietary guidelines would do nothing for Geena; she knows plenty and, as she tells me, “I already eat how I eat.” Recent scholarship has shown high levels of knowledge and preference for healthy foods among low-income participants;[xxiv] the problem is not knowledge but structural constraints and, sometimes, affective barriers like shame and anxiety related to food.[xxv] Geena buys her one meal per day at Whole Foods, and says she notices a difference eating there—the food “seems to hold you” full for longer than other prepared foods. [xxvi] She rates her food agency as 1 out of 10; handing it over to a quality-food store is the best she can do with her current circumstances, but it’s still a huge compromise in decision-making. “It’s getting to the point,” she says, “where you’re telling me I have to grow everything myself. And then cook it to make sure I’m getting the right thing.”
Geena’s story shows how external structures can severely impede agency. In her case, skill and self-efficacy seemingly add to the frustration of not being able to overcome structural barriers. At best, Geena is able to exercise proxy agency,[xxvii] handing over decision-making and action to the food purveyors she trusts the most—or, perhaps, mistrusts the least. The transition of ceding control, and the consequences for people’s health, troubles Geena deeply. She believes that “when women gave up their pantry, they gave up their power”—their power to eat well and to weather the hard economic times she now faces.
How do we learn how to eat in the first place? This question emerges from my conversations with Annie, a middle-aged Filipina American who moved to the U.S. at age seven. Her descriptions of her early life on the island echo Anjanette’s memories of her grandmother’s North Carolina farm, an abundance of fresh food and the seemingly loving labor of preparing it. At six years old, she already knew how to de-feather a chicken, choose fish from the fishmonger, clean fish, and generally help “in the action” of the working kitchen. She had a high level of skill and self-efficacy and a high degree of structural support, such as access to gardens and the time to grow and process food. She remembers getting up at dawn in the Philippines, going “shopping” in the garden for fresh fruit and vegetables. “I wanna go back to that lifestyle,” she told me. “It’s just heaven.”
Annie’s eating habits moved from fresh Filipino food, to processed American food, to teenage vegetarianism, to pescatarianism, and now to a diet largely self-sustained by her community garden plot. This arc was driven by her quest to learn how to nourish herself in a system that, like Geena, she sees as fundamentally hostile to physical health. Her diet has remained largely Asian, as she puts it; the only way in which her food choice has really assimilated is through the influence of popular nutrition advice, disseminated by public health institutions and journalists. Like Geena, she has accumulated such guidelines over the years. Her knowledge and inquisitiveness are deep. She learned how to get essential vitamins and minerals from plant sources. However, she wishes her parents or teachers had taught her how food affects one’s physical health, instead of having to search out information herself—or perhaps, that she never had to learn this unhealthy system at all.
The information Annie has amassed can get in the way of cultural norms and of pleasure. Her favorite dish is rice, but she doesn’t eat it; she says she’s “supposed to eat brown rice,” according to nutritional guidance on whole grains, but the flavor and texture disappoint her as someone who grew up eating white rice. Rather than compromise, she’s given it up. The line between culture and nutrition blurs here. Writers like Michael Pollan tried to popularize the idea that, in general, a traditional diet is probably a healthy diet.[xxviii] Annie seems to have internalized a different idea: that one must eat first for nutrition, and avoid food if its primary appeal is pleasure or culture, which otherwise is sacrosanct in her negotiated, American foodways.
Annie has gone to great lengths to cook for herself and satisfy her own standards. Like Geena, although Annie calls herself poor, she does not often take free food, because it is often highly processed, and she cannot physically handle foods that aren’t “real.” “I have a clean palate,” she tells me; she can detect dairy or meat hidden in dishes prepared by her friends: “I know when it’s corrupted.” Like Geena, she is not always satisfied with the ingredients in the places she chooses to shop. In Annie’s case at Trader Joe’s, “they still have ingredients that I think should not be here.” As a college student, Annie spent every Sunday shopping and cooking. She’d travel to a produce wholesaler—probably only a ten-minute drive, she says, but two hours each way on the bus—and then spend the afternoon chopping vegetables and freezing meals for the week. She says she often wakes up at 4 a.m. to cook, before leaving the house for the day with lunch packed.
The external conditions had to be right for Annie to exercise her agency. Annie mentions that she has to eat every four hours, or she’ll get migraines. For Annie and Geena especially, maintaining health seems like a full-time job. When she first moved to Philadelphia as a child, Annie says the “urban living was hostile, it was violent.” Her family tried to grow food, but their neighbors, addicted to drugs, would let dogs defecate in the garden. She grows her own vegetables now in a relatively new community garden and shops around for other staples. As someone who had already maximized it in the areas of attitude and self-efficacy, shifting structures have helped further increase her food agency. The economic power of her gardening and cooking skills can’t be overstated. She estimates she spends $15 per month now on groceries, primarily on olive oil (although she also mentioned buying fruits, nuts, and other things; this may have been an estimate for summer months, the time of our interviews). “And I’m still poor,” she says. But she ranks her food agency as 10 out of 10: because of the garden, she feels, “I’m no longer in chains.”
“What makes me cook,” Francine told me, laughing, “is that I am very cheap.” She also cooks because she enjoys it. In many ways, Francine is the anomaly in this group of women. Although she is budget-conscious, she is not as financially constrained as Annie or Geena, and although she considers healthy variations on her cooking repertoire, she is not nearly as preoccupied with nutrition as the others. With fewer structural and personal impediments to her agency, she is curious about cooking for cooking’s sake—for pleasure, for skill.
Francine makes cooking affordable through strategic shopping: using coupons, seeking out sale items, buying in bulk, and breaking down large packages before freezing them. Other research has shown people to cope with financial constraints around food through activities like strategic shopping, although such coping mechanisms can usually only mitigate, not fully overcome, barriers.[xxix] Although she budget-shops, she also emphasizes quality, eating “the best of the best,” which she defines mostly as being name-brand. Time, she says, is the biggest element in her meal planning—how much time she has to cook, and how much energy. Time to cook, rather than money or time to shop, may be her biggest consideration precisely because she is able to navigate structural and personal elements, like price and balance of food groups, through her daily strategies. If she had more time and money, she says she would probably eat more expensive foods like chicken and fish (“I’m really picky about where I get it from”), but she wouldn’t eat out more; she could afford convenience food but doesn’t prefer it.
For Francine’s food agency, the question that arises is less how do we learn to eat but how do we learn to cook. She is, it sounds, a highly competent, self-taught home cook. “I pretty much do it all,” she told me, after listing the various things she cooks on a regular basis. Francine originally built her skills out of necessity, after leaving home and eventually starting her own family. Despite her skill, a layer of exclusion separates her from some other highly-engaged and curious home cooks. Like a musician playing by ear, she successfully mimics the flavors of new dishes she tastes, but she does not use cookbooks. She recalls using one when she was young and not understanding the vocabulary. “I know you know this word,” she said to me. “Fold. And I’m like, how do you do that?…And since I didn’t understand the terminology, I gave up on cookbooks, and I just kinda been winging it ever since.” While it is clear from Francine’s descriptions of her home cooking that she has extensive cooking skills, her unfamiliarity with the jargon is an example of cultural alienation. In this way, agency can be undercut by cultural structures that may have little to do with actual ability but still shut people out from furthering their own practices and aspirations for quality or pleasure. Food agency research has not yet incorporated the idea of cultural structures impeding self-efficacy, but it clearly affects these participants.
Annie speaks to the same experience of cultural alienation from the culinary world. A primary motivation for her to take the cooking class was to learn “the lingo.” She says, “when we’re in the kitchen in the Philippines, we don’t say ‘sweat your garlic and onions,’ we just know. If we’re given onions and garlic, we knew what to do. But there’s no name for that.” Both Francine and Annie looked forward to the “exposure’ the cooking class would provide them. For Francine, it is her first time ever exposed to a professional chef. There is a cultural difference between embodied skill and the perceived legitimacy of formally transferred knowledge. Both Annie and Francine possess the former in abundance, but yearn for the latter. Would they be better cooks, would they be happier eaters, being exposed to more highly gastronomic food experiences? It is hard to say whether their lack of access to formal education is a true constraint, or if it is a cultural aspiration that doesn’t ultimately hinder their food agency. Like Annie, Francine rates her agency at 10/10 and like Annie, credits her provisioning strategies, but wonders if her satisfaction may be partly due to a narrow view of what is possible to experience. “I pretty much eat what I like to eat, but at the same time, I feel that there’s a lot of things I’ve never experienced before…I don’t really know what I’m missing.” Much of food agency research seeks to understand individual actions in reference to their own motivations and the environments that shape their lives. Francine’s agency is felt and enacted partly through how she perceives her own experience and skills in relation to others’. Structure here is the structure of knowledge that she feels excluded from.
…while price is paramount, low-income people are neither unthinking dupes of the corporate food system motivated only by appetite, nor overly rational calculators driven only by price, but inhabitants of marginalized yet complex social worlds in which they must actively navigate a variety of barriers to obtain the foods they prefer.[xxx]
Diving into these women’s food-sourcing stories unveils details that are often glossed-over by high-level measurements and reveals the lived, human reality of what it means to source nourishing food within unsupportive circumstances. I wrote another paper from this study, which was more technical and non-narrative. While useful for its intended purposes, it held these experiences of food agency at a distance, organized by concepts rather than specific and shifting conditions, aspirations, discouragements, and the knowledge and strength drawn from cultural traditions.[xxxi] Such an approach lacks exploration of one’s true food life.
Systems thinking is increasingly prevalent in academic conversations about food, and it is clear in these vignettes that participants think systemically themselves. Annie compares the American food system, and its failures in both nutrition and nutritional education, to an entirely different system of her childhood in the Philippines: one that was more physically and economically accessible, more culturally grounded, healthier, and more gastronomically interesting to her. Geena weaves together strands of traditional Black foodways with modern nutritional understandings and the awareness of how the capitalist food system that undermines wellbeing. Anjanette describes her own pastoral history and that of the Amish people who live and sell farm goods in Pennsylvania, and she contrasts those ways of sourcing food with the expensive urban foodways that make it difficult to follow standardized dietary recommendations. They all strike a complicated balance between their upbringings, their current economic circumstances, their attention to professional health recommendations, their own food preferences and pleasures, and the limited time available in everyday life. For these three (and to a somewhat lesser extent Francine), there is a pervading sense of the food system being at best obstructive, and at worst dangerous and hostile. Structural challenges make it difficult to solve on the individual level. Other research has found that skill building is more important than nutrition education for helping people access foods, but less important than increasing food availability.[xxxii]
Through dealing with so many systemic obstructions—known in food agency measurement as “structure”—personal skill becomes the primary avenue for participants to source and prepare foods they desire. We have seen how Annie gardens, Francine shops in bulk, and all four women source food from multiple places, mostly far outside their local neighborhood. These findings reinforce research conducted in Detroit, where participants’ barriers to sourcing food included availability, accessibility, cost, and quality, which they navigated by careful consideration of products, multiple food outlets, and sophisticated nutritional understandings.[xxxiii] As I have noted elsewhere, the restrictive physical and economic environment in this study appears to have necessitated and even indirectly catalyzed participants in building skills to navigate it.[xxxiv] A lack of structural agency may, to an extent, result in greater self-efficacy if one can stay positive and engaged. Structure can also support overall agency and bolster attitude and self-efficacy, as with Francine, who has enough money to bulk buy, or Annie, who has the skill and desire to garden but was unable to until a community garden was opened. Both these women rated their personal food agency in much higher terms, because the structures of their lives allowed them to use their personal skills. In other words, here knowledge is relative power: it is crucial, but it may not fully overcome structural limitations Self-taught knowledge is also a strong theme, in terms of both nutrition (Geena, Annie, and Anjanette) and cooking (Francine). They are learning things they need outside the support of formal channels, outside the structures of educational systems.
In previous food agency work, time has been theorized and validated as an important facet for preparing and sourcing meals, as for working parents who must cook dinner for small children in a packed evening schedule.[xxxv] While it always takes time to prepare meals, especially from less processed foods, these participants’ food actions required significant additional time, thanks to prohibitive economic and environmental structures such as having to travel long distances to stores, visit multiple stores, and take multiple travel legs. These women have the time and inclination to shop this way, but many people would not. “Time poverty” thus manifests in different ways, depending on circumstance, although it is a nearly universally experienced obstacle to enacting food agency.[xxxvi] Low-income foodways, in particular, are shaped not only by distance from food, but by culture, habit, preferences, desires, and economics. Poor people in “food deserts” will travel and “employ a wide variety of strategies to obtain the foods they prefer at prices they can afford.”[xxxvii] In this study, it is physical and economic structures, rather than social ones like work hours or family obligations, that must be overcome.
Against a backdrop of restrictive food environments, people on the outside of these communities often assume erroneously that low-income people eat whatever is most immediately available, driven by a combination of immediate sensory cravings and a high ratio of calories to price.[xxxviii] In this view, pleasure, as a part of eating, is either counted out or considered only in terms of what are broadly deemed “unhealthy” convenience foods. In this study, however, the pleasure participants derive from food is much more multifaceted and negotiated than this stereotype. In these stories, pleasure encompasses more than straightforward sensory taste; just as “people interpret ‘healthy’ food in complex and diverse ways that reflect their personal, social, and cultural experiences, as well as their environments,”[xxxix] these women have similarly complex definitions of pleasurable and desirable food. Conversely, they often do not fully indulge their pleasures, being constrained by health concerns, money to buy quality food, access, or time. Having determined that white rice is not healthy enough, Annie eschews all rice, because brown rice does not meet her sensory expectations. Geena tries expensive or rich foods in moderation; she wants to try everything once, even if she will not or cannot eat it again. Anjanette tries to walk the line of being satisfied with her meals and not allowing herself to eat excessively. Francine buys less of items like fish than she would like to so that she can buy the higher quality kinds. Pleasure thus becomes part of how participants choose and avoid certain foods. These negotiations of different kinds of pleasure, and which kinds can be indulged, contribute to a high level of discernment in participants’ food engagements. Quality becomes a vital strategy to maximize wellbeing, in terms of both health and enjoyment.
Threading through the stories these women shared was a longing for traditional food systems. Anjanette spoke rapturously of her grandmother’s farm, with few modern amenities but an abundance of fresh food, which appeared parallel to her admiration for Amish living and products. Annie described her desires explicitly of her old life in the Philippines, wishing to live on a plot of land where she could grow even more of her own food and share it with others. Geena drew many of her food guidelines from Black history and spoke of poor people’s wisdom in knowing that the best foods were the ones grown in the ground, not the “rich” foods that wealthy people indulged in. She judges her modern-day choices by traditional standard fare. Even Francine, who was generally more satisfied than the others with the food choices she could make, spoke regretfully of not having learned family recipes from her grandmother—the recipes “died with her.” Traditional methods, in both growing and cooking, remain strong, meaningful touchstones for how participants direct and appraise their food choices, including how able they are to replicate legacies in daily action. For them, food agency is shaped in part by the difference between what food used to be, versus what can be achieved in a food system less oriented toward those histories. This is just one of the ways that the food system does not truly serve them—not only in terms of sating hunger or providing nourishment, the metrics often applied to food success, but in connection to inherited meanings of food.
Perhaps surprisingly, gender did not emerge as a major theme in the ways that these women enact food agency. Food has always been organized in society in gendered ways,[xl] with food provisioning falling to women.[xli] In the CAFPAS (food agency scale) initial testing and validation, there was no significant associations between scores and respondents’ reported sex.[xlii] In more recent work based in the Czech Republic, however, women score higher, thanks to differences in perceived self-efficacy.[xliii] Generally, this may mean that cultural context influences how people of different genders perceive their abilities to source and prepare food. In this study, gender did not emerge as a strong theme in how participants frame their actions, whereas their socioeconomic circumstances and ethnic heritage featured prominently. This may be partly because none of the women had children at home, and only one had a partner, so their role as food provisioner was more individual than socially determined. Regardless, it is an important reminder that the ways that researchers categorize patterns in the food system are not always the ways that people conceptualize their own lived experience.
As a final note, this study is limited in its generalizability. It has examined a small sub-sample of a qualitative sample, a group of people who self-selected to take a cooking course and were therefore likely to be interested in and motivated by food. Participants also had time to take the course, effectively eliminating the participation of people working multiple jobs and/or with children at home. [xliv] These limitations are also part of the justification for doing such research. Here is a group from whom academics and decision-makers do not often hear in detail: financially constrained people with a high level of food engagement and aspiration for action, whose motivations and actions are much more complicated than a simple categorization of “food secure” or “food insecure.” Future studies about food agency and food environment should consider the way that broad structures play out in people’s lives, and ideally such research would be co-created with communities and directed at the ways food agency could be supported in their particular context.
Despite all living in the same neighborhood, these four women have very different daily experiences of food agency. They have differing levels of cooking skill, ability to provision, anxiety about what they do source and eat, and aspiration to eat in ways that seem healthier or more fulfilling. Even the two who feel free and unconstrained, 10/10 in their own estimations of their agency, arrive at that feeling from different avenues. Annie finds freedom through gardening, and Francine through bargain shopping and food preservation. Despite the differences in circumstance, these women see themselves situated within complex and often unsupportive systems, and within long lineages of food traditions. Traditional understandings, to an extent, provide them guidance on what kinds of foods they should pursue, despite structural obstacles.
There is abundant literature on structural impediments to food access, from food insecurity measures to food desert maps. Research on food agency, however, would benefit from greater attention to how structure interacts with the other facets of food agency, namely self-efficacy and personal attitudes toward food. This study shows that having high levels of skill and interest in provisioning and cooking can help navigate unsupportive food environments. It also shows that too many structural impediments can still impede someone like Geena, who has a high level of engagement and knowledge without the money or infrastructure necessary to act freely. Being poor does not mean that one gives up on quality, health, or pleasure in food—but it can make it much more difficult to realize those objectives.
The pursuit of greater food agency is the pursuit of greater equity in the food system. It is about how able people are to access and prepare the meals they want, and to what degree they are constrained by external structures. How do we understand what is needed, when food agency is so particular to an individual and their place in the world? In this study, participants strive to access and afford high quality and culturally appropriate products, evaluate understand processed food ingredients, access land to grow food. They want greater access to foods they experience as both healthy and delicious. They want to be able to choose for themselves.
 This research was approved by University of Vermont’s Institutional Review Board and all participants agreed to have their information shared anonymously.
 All names have been changed.
 She refers to a food safety scandal in China in 2008, involving milk contaminated with melamine.
 Recent scholarship argues that Whole Foods has become a practical and rhetorical shorthand for low-income shoppers, in positive terms as a standard of quality and in negative terms as a class performance.
 . For narratives of how low-income parents navigate restrictive environments, I highly recommend Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won’t Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It.
[i] Amy B. Trubek et al., “Empowered to Cook: The Crucial Role of ‘Food Agency’ in Making Meals,” Appetite 116 (September 2017): 297–305, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2017.05.017; Julia A. Wolfson et al., “A Comprehensive Approach to Understanding Cooking Behavior: Implications for Research and Practice,” British Food Journal 119, no. 5 (May 2, 2017): 1147–58, https://doi.org/10.1108/BFJ-09-2016-0438.
[ii] Trubek et al., “Empowered to Cook.”
[iii] Jacob Lahne, Julia A. Wolfson, and Amy Trubek, “Development of the Cooking and Food Provisioning Action Scale (CAFPAS): A New Measurement Tool for Individual Cooking Practice,” Food Quality and Preference 62 (December 1, 2017): 96–105, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodqual.2017.06.022.
[iv] Jon Hurdle, “Closing in on 5 Years, Has Mantua’s Promise Zone Designation Laid a Foundation for Poverty Reversal?,” Philadelphia Weekly, November 2, 2018, https://philadelphiaweekly.com/closing-in-on-5-years-has-mantuas-promise-zone-designation-laid-a-foundation-for-poverty-reversal/.
[v] Mayor’s Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity, “West Philadelphia Promise Zone.”(Mayor’s Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity n.d.) accessed March 16, 2021, https://www.hudexchange.info/sites/onecpd/assets/File/Promise-Zones-Designee-West-Philadelphia.pdf.
[vi] Kathryn Matheson, “Mantua: ‘Promising’ a Supermarket in Mantua,” Philadelphia Neighborhoods (blog), April 2, 2014, https://philadelphianeighborhoods.com/2014/04/02/mantua-promising-a-supermarket-in-mantua/.
[vii] Steve O’Connor, “Access to Healthy Food in Philadelphia Neighborhoods: How Corner Stores Impact Food Choices” (M.S. Thesis, Drexel University, 2013), http://hdl.handle.net/1860/idea:7135.
[viii] Julia A. Wolfson and Cindy W. Leung, “Food Insecurity During COVID-19: An Acute Crisis With Long-Term Health Implications,” American Journal of Public Health 110, no. 12 (December 2020): 1763–65, https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2020.305953.
[ix] Julia A. Wolfson and Cindy W. Leung, “Food Insecurity and COVID-19: Disparities in Early Effects for US Adults,” Nutrients 12, no. 6 (June 2020): 1648, https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12061648.
[x] Mahbubur R Meenar, “Using Participatory and Mixed-Methods Approaches in GIS to Develop a Place-Based Food Insecurity and Vulnerability Index,” Environment and Planning A 49, no. 5 (May 2017): 1181–1205, https://doi.org/10.1177/0308518X16686352.
[xi] Jacob Lahne, Julia A. Wolfson, and Amy Trubek, “Development of the Cooking and Food Provisioning Action Scale (CAFPAS): A New Measurement Tool for Individual Cooking Practice,” Food Quality and Preference 62 (December 1, 2017): 96–105, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodqual.2017.06.022.Lahne, Wolfson, and Trubek, “Development of the Cooking and Food Provisioning Action Scale (CAFPAS).”
[xii] Jeffery Sobal and Carole A. Bisogni, “Constructing Food Choice Decisions,” Annals of Behavioral Medicine 38, no. 1 (September 29, 2009): 37–46, https://doi.org/10.1007/s12160-009-9124-5.
[xiii] Trubek et al., “Empowered to Cook,” 297.
[xiv] Rachelle K. Gould et al., “A Protocol for Eliciting Nonmaterial Values through a Cultural Ecosystem Services Frame: Analyzing Cultural Ecosystem Services,” Conservation Biology 29, no. 2 (April 2015): 575–86, https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.12407.
[xv] Gould et al.
[xvi] Anna De Fina and Alexandra Georgakopoulou, The Handbook of Narrative Analysis (John Wiley & Sons, 2015).
[xvii] Catherine Kohler Riessman, Narrative Analysis (SAGE, 1993).
[xviii] Jay L. Zagorsky and Patricia K. Smith, “The Association between Socioeconomic Status and Adult Fast-Food Consumption in the U.S.,” Economics & Human Biology 27 (November 1, 2017): 12–25, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ehb.2017.04.004.
[xix] Joy Moses, “Moving Away from Racial Stereotypes in Poverty Policy” (Center for American Progress, February 23, 2012), https://www.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/issues/2012/02/pdf/race_stereotypes.pdf.
[xx] U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, “National Stakeholder Strategy for Achieving Health Equity,” accessed March 16, 2021, https://www.minorityhealth.hhs.gov/npa/files/Plans/NSS/CompleteNSS.pdf.
[xxi] Martine Stead et al., “Confident, Fearful and Hopeless Cooks,” British Food Journal 106, no. 4 (April 1, 2004): 274–87, https://doi.org/10.1108/00070700410529546.
[xxii] Cindy W. Leung et al., “A Qualitative Study of Diverse Experts’ Views About Barriers and Strategies to Improve the Diets and Health of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Beneficiaries,” Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 113, no. 1 (January 2013): 70–76, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2012.09.018.
[xxiii] Alexandra Evans et al., “Increasing Access to Healthful Foods: A Qualitative Study with Residents of Low-Income Communities,” International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 12, no. 1 (July 27, 2015): S5, https://doi.org/10.1186/1479-5868-12-S1-S5.
[xxiv] Evans et al, “Increasing Access to Healthful Foods.”
[xxv] Molly Clark-Barol, Jennifer E. Gaddis, and Claire K. Barrett, “Food Agency in Low-Income Households: A Qualitative Study of the Structural and Individual Factors Impacting Participants in a Community-Based Nutrition Program,” Appetite 158 (March 1, 2021): 105013, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2020.105013.
[xxvi] Priya Fielding-Singh, How the Other Half Eats (New York: Hatchett Book Company, 2021).
[xxvii] Albert Bandura, “Exercise of Human Agency Through Collective Efficacy,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 9, no. 3 (June 2000): 75–78, https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8721.00064.
[xxviii] Michael Pollan, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual (New York: Penguin Books, 2009).
[xxix] Daniel J. Rose, “Captive Audience? Strategies for Acquiring Food in Two Detroit Neighborhoods,” Qualitative Health Research 21, no. 5 (May 1, 2011): 642–51, https://doi.org/10.1177/1049732310387159.
[xxx] Alison Hope Alkon et al., “Foodways of the Urban Poor,” Geoforum 48 (August 2013): 132, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2013.04.021.
[xxxi] Caitlin B. Morgan, “Expanding Food Agency Theory and Measurement with Mixed Methods:,” Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development 9, no. 4 (July 10, 2020): 229-244-229–44, https://doi.org/10.5304/jafscd.2020.094.016.
[xxxii] Rose, “Captive Audience?”
[xxxiii] Rose, “Captive Audience?”
[xxxiv] Morgan, “Expanding Food Agency Theory and Measurement with Mixed Methods.”
[xxxv] Trubek et al., “Empowered to Cook”; Lahne, Wolfson, and Trubek, “Development of the Cooking and Food Provisioning Action Scale (CAFPAS).”
[xxxvi] Amy B. Trubek, Making Modern Meals: How Americans Cook Today, California Studies in Food and Culture 66 (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2017).
[xxxvii] Alkon et al., “Foodways of the Urban Poor,” 126.
[xxxviii] Rose, “Captive Audience?”; Alkon et al., “Foodways of the Urban Poor.”
[xxxix] Carole A. Bisogni et al., “How People Interpret Healthy Eating: Contributions of Qualitative Research,” Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior 44, no. 4 (July 2012): 282, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jneb.2011.11.009.
[xl] Patricia Allen and Carolyn Sachs, “Women and Food Chains: The Gendered Politics of Food,” in Taking Food Public: Redefining Foodways in a Changing World, ed. Psyche Williams Forson and Carole Counihan (Routledge, 2013), 23–40.
[xli] Patricia Allen and Carolyn Sachs, “Women and Food Chains: The Gendered Politics of Food,” The International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food 15, no. 1 (January 10, 2007): 1–23, https://doi.org/10.48416/ijsaf.v15i1.424.
[xlii] Lahne, Wolfson, and Trubek, “Development of the Cooking and Food Provisioning Action Scale (CAFPAS).”
[xliii] Lukas Zagata, Jan Urban, and Tomas Uhnak, “Revalidation and Empirical Application of the Cooking and Food Provisioning Action Scale (CAFPAS),” Food Quality and Preference 99 (July 2022): 104540, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodqual.2022.104540.
[xliv] Sarah Bowen, Joslyn Brenton, and Sinikka Elliott, eds., Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won’t Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019).