Food and ‘differences and divisions’

In this writing I will discuss how the social divisions of age, gender, ethnicity and class contribute to inequalities between social groups in relation to food consumption. The food we eat is shaped by the social divisions that do exist between social groups. According to McIntosh and Kubena (1999) age is a division that contributes to inequalities in relation to food consumption. The populations of most developed countries are growing older. The number of people aged 65 years and older is projected to double in the next 25 years.

The growth of the older population will have an impact on every aspect of society. Age, ageing and elderly are all words with supposed biological meanings, yet each represents a socially defined category. McIntosh and Kubena (1999) state that older people are considered to be a group at high risk of food insecurity, hunger and poor nutrition. There is also considerable evidence that older people experience ageism, or prejudice and discrimination based on age. They are particularly vulnerable because they tend to have fewer socio-economic resources as well as being more prone to isolation, stress and disability.

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These problems tend to be even more prevalent among older people who are members of ethnic minorities. Many older people who face these problems are able to compensate for their lack of resources through their social networks which may include friends, family and neighbours i. e. neighbours may drop in for a cup of tea and bring some food with them (McIntosh and Kubena 1999). According to McIntosh and Kubena (1999) ethnicity is a social status that has implications for the distribution of resources. Social scientists argue that the combination of low income and ethnicity constitutes “double jeopardy’.

It is clearly possible to identify differences between social groups in terms of the food they eat. These differences may involve status differences as well as more profound inequalities. At the broadest level, differences in what people eat can involve inequalities. There are some people who just do not get enough food, or not enough food of the right kind (Ryan, A. 2005: 29). Food consumption can also lead to inequalities in health – poor diet can lead to starvation, malnutrition, or the development of certain diseases e. . diabetes which is very prevalent in New Zealand among Maori and Pacific peoples. The second element of differences in food consumption refers to the fact that while people in traditional societies might all eat more or less the same food, the same cannot be said of societies like our own (Ryan, A. 2005: 30). In New Zealand food has come to be a signifier of social status. People in New Zealand might celebrate birthdays by eating anything from a traditional Maori hangi to an expensive meal at an expensive restaurant.

Food consumption patterns are based on social group membership. These differences in food consumption depend on the social group that people belong to. In particular, class position, ethnicity, occupation and generation are important determinants of the food we eat. The particular food choices that we make help to reinforce the distinctions between people. What we eat helps to distinguish us from others e. g. some people show their wealth and sophistication by eating at some kinds of restaurants and not others (Ryan, A. 2005: 30).

Changing social values have increased the prominence of social groups with distinct eating patterns, such as vegetarian (Ryan, A. 2005: 30). Albany health psychologist Professor Kerry Chamberlain said that eating disorders and obesity could continue to increase as anxiety about food is encouraged and reinforced through potent marketing and media messages. Once the family dinner was just that – people sat down together at the end of the day and ate a meal for sustenance without qualm that their food was contaminated or a fast track to a heart attack and they survived. But now the cultural meaning of food has changed.

Eaters are faced with evermore complex choices, their anxiety further added to by the fact that being healthy through having a healthy diet is linked with being morally worthy (Massey News, 2002). The social division of gender also helps shape eating habits, some examples of this are: food preparation is overwhelmingly performed by women, even women that are in paid work still do most of the food preparation, although women do the food preparation it is men’s and children’s food preferences that determine what is eaten and women sometimes attempt to please husbands and children through t he food they prepare (Ryan, A. 005: 42). In conclusion we are all products of our society. But we are also self-conscious beings which means we have the ability to participate in and change the society into which we are born. So in this respect we can exercise some agency in our lives. Human agency produces the scope for difference diversity and change (Ryan, A. 2005: 31)