Dissertation Abstracts

Debt on my Plate: Making Sense of Food Shifts in Chile

Author: Daniela J Garcia Grandon, daniela.garciag@gmail.com
Department: Sociology
University: North Carolina State University, United States
Supervisor: Sarah Bowen
Year of completion: 2018
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: Latin America , Nutrition Transition , Food , Financialization
Areas of Research: Agriculture and Food , Economy and Society , Family Research


From the 1970s onwards, foods provisioning practices and diets have shifted globally, disproportionately affecting low-income populations. I utilize the case of Chile to explore how and why these trends have unfolded. In the last 30 years, Chilean diets have transitioned towards a more “affluent diet,” even though nearly one-third of Chileans report that they cannot afford to buy food with their salaries. At the same time, Chileans have experienced an expansion of consumer credit, led by supermarkets. Yet, current research has paid little attention to how people articulate these changes in food provisioning and food debt. Using secondary data and interviews with people in Santiago, Chile, I investigate how people articulate and negotiate these food changes. My findings suggest that intersecting trends of supermarketization, financialization, and the expansion of global trade shape not only specific practices but also the shift away from local food markets and home gardening and toward global food retailers. Participants revealed shifting meanings attached to the food that they purchased. For instance, foods such as sushi and premium cuts of meat were considered desirable foods, and participants spent a considerable portion of their budget or used food debt to purchase them. Participants also expressed multiple and sometimes competing expectations around the nutrition and health of specific foods. There were class differences related to how participants discussed food provisioning practices. Most poor participants were more worried about price and family preferences than anything else. Working class and middle-class participants were primarily motivated by their attempts to meet expectations around providing healthy and preferred foods, even when they lacked the resources to do so. Credit cards were a tool to break the barrier of affordability. The use of credit to buy food created tension between participants’ budget constraints, which they considered their own responsibility, and their desire to indulge family expectations. Coping with social expectations was a source of anxiety and stress for those who used food debt as a solution strategy. Participants recognized that using credit to buy food created other problems for them, including the added burden of food debt as part of the labor of care, and the increased long-term economic unsustainability of the household. I also explored the moral consequences of food debt. I found differences by class and social status in how participants described why they acquired or avoided debts to buy food, but similarities in how they expressed moral evaluations around the use of credit to buy food. Food debt acted as a device of social conflict, creating moral boundaries of blame to evaluate people as “at fault” or “not-at-fault.” Some people expressed ambivalence about these boundaries; I classified them as “ambivalent.” These conflicts also exposed the internalization and reproduction of neoliberal values of competition and individualism. This case stands to provide conceptual tools to understand the effects of globalizing trends on food transformations in Latin America and how people make sense of them on the ground and on their plates.