Between the school and the family: Children´s food knowledge and eating practices

Between the school and the family: Children´s food knowledge and eating practices

Obesity and overweight global statistics obtain impressive estimates that account for more than one billion people under this category, wherein 300 million are obese, making it one of the challenging problems in the 21st century. This issue achieves special importance amongst children, where it has gained epidemic contours - amongst EU25, recent estimates indicate that there are 22 million overweight children, of which 5.1 million are obese. The scarce studies conducted in Portugal show that more than 30% of children between 7 and 11 years old are overweight or obese. Children's imbalanced food diets (with excess sugar and fat) are one of the justifications. Moreover, a substantial part of children's life is spent at school, it being of crucial importance the role of the school, and particularly the school meal system, in providing and encouraging children to adopt healthier lifestyles and eating habits. Given the pertinence of this theme - regularly picked up by the media - and the still scarce international and, above all, national sociological studies on the topic, this project aims at examining the organization and regulation of the school meal system towards healthy meals; children's food appropriation and knowledge and their families' eating habits. In Portugal, as in other European countries, the school meal system has been strongly criticised for providing nutritiously poor food, where products high in fat, salt and sugar repeatedly abound on school menus. Moreover, these products are often sourced from intensive and globalized agrofood systems that carry considerable ripple effects on health, sustainability and equity. In addition, concerns on what children know about food and how they connect to and appropriate food are increasing. To respond to these problems, a gradual school meal reform has been taking place in several European countries. Portugal is not an exception, and in the last years government recommendations have been issued providing guidelines to schools and their catering services on how to elaborate nutritiously balanced menus and offer healthier food in school cafeterias.

In tandem, European Union initiatives to encourage children to eat more fruit and vegetables have been enforced through the School Fruit Scheme, and Portugal has embraced this initiative for the school year 2009/2010. In addition, in some countries re-localizing public procurement and sourcing local and organic foods are some of the strategies towards health, food safety and sustainability. In Portugal recent studies showed that producers and consumers enthusiasm for organic and national foods is gradually increasing, and health is a strong justification for choosing organic foods [10,11]. Thus, a set of questions frame our quest to explore further the connections between the school meal system, children's and their families' eating habits. At the outset of national and European recommendations and initiatives to encourage children to adopt healthier food habits, how have the Portuguese schools embraced and operationalised these changes? How do children appropriate the food that is on offer at school and its surrounding obesogenic context? And how did children react to the recent food changes introduced in schools? How consisted are children's eating habits at school and at home? Are children exposed to the same food messages and knowledge at home and at school or are they contradictory? These questions are our point of departure, along with the initial findings of a British government-funded study that compared the school meal system in the UK and Italy. In this study, in which the proposal's coordinator was involved, an investigation on children's (and their families) eating habits and food knowledge was carried out for both countries. The scarce sociological research in Portugal on the organisation of the school meal system, children's food appropriation and knowledge and their families' eating habits constitutes the main reason for undertaking this study and adapting the research design conceived and already tested by Mara Miele (a consultant in this project). Our proposal draws on these methodologies to ensure international comparison. A combination of children's food diaries; focus groups with children and parents; and semi-structured interviews with key actors in three relevant case studies is employed. Apart from its innovative methodological component, this proposal covers a topic that is still scarcely studied in the sociological literature - children's food knowledge and consumption - informed by a practice perspective.

 

 

 

Estatuto: 
Proponent entity
Financed: 
Yes
Entidades: 
Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia
Rede: 
School Meals
Keywords: 

School meals, Children, Health, Food practices and knowledge

Obesity and overweight global statistics obtain impressive estimates that account for more than one billion people under this category, wherein 300 million are obese, making it one of the challenging problems in the 21st century. This issue achieves special importance amongst children, where it has gained epidemic contours - amongst EU25, recent estimates indicate that there are 22 million overweight children, of which 5.1 million are obese. The scarce studies conducted in Portugal show that more than 30% of children between 7 and 11 years old are overweight or obese. Children's imbalanced food diets (with excess sugar and fat) are one of the justifications. Moreover, a substantial part of children's life is spent at school, it being of crucial importance the role of the school, and particularly the school meal system, in providing and encouraging children to adopt healthier lifestyles and eating habits. Given the pertinence of this theme - regularly picked up by the media - and the still scarce international and, above all, national sociological studies on the topic, this project aims at examining the organization and regulation of the school meal system towards healthy meals; children's food appropriation and knowledge and their families' eating habits. In Portugal, as in other European countries, the school meal system has been strongly criticised for providing nutritiously poor food, where products high in fat, salt and sugar repeatedly abound on school menus. Moreover, these products are often sourced from intensive and globalized agrofood systems that carry considerable ripple effects on health, sustainability and equity. In addition, concerns on what children know about food and how they connect to and appropriate food are increasing. To respond to these problems, a gradual school meal reform has been taking place in several European countries. Portugal is not an exception, and in the last years government recommendations have been issued providing guidelines to schools and their catering services on how to elaborate nutritiously balanced menus and offer healthier food in school cafeterias.

In tandem, European Union initiatives to encourage children to eat more fruit and vegetables have been enforced through the School Fruit Scheme, and Portugal has embraced this initiative for the school year 2009/2010. In addition, in some countries re-localizing public procurement and sourcing local and organic foods are some of the strategies towards health, food safety and sustainability. In Portugal recent studies showed that producers and consumers enthusiasm for organic and national foods is gradually increasing, and health is a strong justification for choosing organic foods [10,11]. Thus, a set of questions frame our quest to explore further the connections between the school meal system, children's and their families' eating habits. At the outset of national and European recommendations and initiatives to encourage children to adopt healthier food habits, how have the Portuguese schools embraced and operationalised these changes? How do children appropriate the food that is on offer at school and its surrounding obesogenic context? And how did children react to the recent food changes introduced in schools? How consisted are children's eating habits at school and at home? Are children exposed to the same food messages and knowledge at home and at school or are they contradictory? These questions are our point of departure, along with the initial findings of a British government-funded study that compared the school meal system in the UK and Italy. In this study, in which the proposal's coordinator was involved, an investigation on children's (and their families) eating habits and food knowledge was carried out for both countries. The scarce sociological research in Portugal on the organisation of the school meal system, children's food appropriation and knowledge and their families' eating habits constitutes the main reason for undertaking this study and adapting the research design conceived and already tested by Mara Miele (a consultant in this project). Our proposal draws on these methodologies to ensure international comparison. A combination of children's food diaries; focus groups with children and parents; and semi-structured interviews with key actors in three relevant case studies is employed. Apart from its innovative methodological component, this proposal covers a topic that is still scarcely studied in the sociological literature - children's food knowledge and consumption - informed by a practice perspective.

 

 

 

Objectivos: 
We aim at unpacking the recent changes in Portugal towards healthy school meals, children's food appropriation and knowledge, and their families' eating habits; herein school-children-family relationships are central. Four main objectives orient our research plan: (1) to identify the institutional motivations for designing and implementing healthy school meal systems, looking in detail at differences and similarities across three selected regions in Portugal; (2) to identify school initiatives and communication strategies towards healthy eating and food education, and the school staff views on those initiatives; (3) to analyse children's views regarding the recent changes in school food, their eating habits and knowledge of food, animals and plants; (4) to analyse parents views towards school food changes, their eating habits and involvement in food reproduction practices with their children.
State of the art: 
This proposal builds on the experience gained while undertaking previous research on producers' and consumers' attitudes towards and uses of organic foods, interdisciplinary research on local food in the UK and this proposal's coordinator participation in a British funded research project on school meals and children eating habits. It also benefits from rich sociological work on public health and youth; advertising and consumption; media and sustainability issues. Thus, this project will examine the organization of the school meal system in Portugal and its recent changes, children's food appropriation and knowledge, and their families eating habits. Sociological studies focusing on children eating habits, food knowledge and school meals are scarce. On this topic, research proliferates within the nutritional sciences and public health education fields, often directed to practical interventions on health and food education driven by concerns around childhood obesity. Despite the valuable insights of such literature, one pressing shortcoming can be identified. It often departs solely from two main theoretical perspectives: individualization through a focus on the body and its genetic make or/and individual behaviour (informed by psychological input); the structural and contextual factors that influence eating habits be they economic, cultural, social or technological. An either/or take on such perspectives is frequent, although studies that include individual and social variables are becoming more common. Nevertheless, this literature is mostly oriented to health promotion, overlooking other aspects beyond health, namely the environmental and ethical qualities of food that also mediate eating practices, a central point explored in. Another flaw is the emphasis given to quantitative methodologies, limiting richness and in-depth approaches to children's food consumption. An aspect that this proposal will contribute to repair with the team vast experience on qualitative methodologies. In addition, a narrow notion of health tends to dominate these studies by focusing on its scientific understanding wherein the nutritional discourse is highlighted. Particular assumptions that frame a rationalistic and reductionist approach to health are taken for granted: health is assumed as a universal value equally and widely desired by everybody. Plus, the scientific recommendations on health and nutrition are the authoritative bases of knowledge and the effective way on which to improve health. Finally, if children do not follow the advice of scientific experts, lack of information or poor understanding are advanced as justifications. Once the knowledge deficit is diagnosed, more information is offered as solution. These are problematic assumptions. When examining consumer meanings of organic foods, a plurality of associations with 'health' was found, contributing to question the binary and normative character in food classification: unhealthy/healthy. Besides, there are other legitimate knowledge bases beyond science, notably lay knowledge. Such diversity thwarts not only a hierarchical view of knowledge but also rejects the notion of people (and children) as passive recipients of expert knowledge. Additional information can be ineffective especially if a top-down approach is implemented and neglects situated practices. It is, thus, advisable to depart from an understanding of food practices as they are performed by children and their families in their everyday lives along with the way food knowledge and competences are acquired and distributed through and, in the course, of practice. As to the sociological literature, recent contributions on this topic are still few and far between. The sociology of childhood tends to approach it from the 'production of consumption' angle, whereas the sociology of consumption pays little systematic and detailed attention to children. A social constructionist approach emphasizing socialization processes is often applied to explain children's knowledge and eating habits, and structural/holist factors are enhanced. Recent work in the 'new' sociology of childhood recognises children as social actors capable of reflexivity, a view that we share. Still, a practice approach to children's food consumption and food knowledge is greatly missing. This approach promises to be fruitful in overcoming some of these shortcomings. A middle ground theoretical perspective avoids falling into individualist or holist angles and moves towards a relational and processual perspective of food practices and knowledge formation (beyond child development and socialization processes). Therefore, this proposal looks at the organization of the school meal system as a gateway to understand children's food appropriation and knowledge and their families' eating habits by piecing together different bodies of work derived from the sociologies of food, consumption and childhood.
Parceria: 
International networ
Silvia Cardoso
Vanda Aparecida da Silva
José Pedro Teixeira
Coordenador 
Start Date: 
01/04/2011
End Date: 
31/03/2014
Duração: 
42 meses
Closed