Podcast Episode: Food for Thought. Reflections on the project
Category: Young people
What follows is a transcription of the audio recording. Due to differences between spoken and written English, the transcript may contain quirks of grammar and syntax.
BD - Professor Bridget Daniel
The Food for Thought project grew out of research undertaken by the University of Stirling into the symbolic role of food in foster and residential child care. Bridget Daniel is Professor of Social Work at the University of Stirling, she pooled together the main messages from the original Food Practices research as well as the Food for Thought project. She highlighted the value in combining practice based evidence with academic research adding a sprinkling of the day to day experiences of children and young people.
BD I am Bridget Daniel, Professional of Social Work here, and I want to add my welcome to all of you to Stirling University. There were a few threads I wanted to pull together from today. The first thread is about the original Food and Care study actually, which I think stands very, very strongly in its own right and obviously all the follow on has flowed from it, and I think there’s some really important messages from that that have come out today that I want to just kind of reiterate from what I have heard.
What I think this is a very, very good example of a study that effectively brings together a range of theoretical strands, but also with practice, experience and practice wisdom, and it shows the benefit of just studying the ordinary, every day. Now sometimes this sort of research is described as a ‘research of the bleeding obvious’, and some of you might say, ‘well this is common sense, isn’t it’, but that’s the point, that’s what is so really, really helpful. Because what has come out for me today is the extent to which the kind of things that was being discovered in this study is the sort of things that people are working effectively and creatively and well, know already and are doing, and one of the things I think that we are not very good at is celebrating the good things that people, like yourselves are doing all the time that goes on under the radar and it’s just like ordinary, and many of you will take it for granted, well of course you would do it, it’s common sense. But it needs actually sometimes the lens of a piece of research and the underpinning theory to kind of bring it to life, you then have the evidence you can use to make the argument for why what you want to do, you do above the radar, not below the radar, it becomes part of routine practice, it becomes part of policies. So I think it’s very important that we continue to do research on ordinary, everyday things and bring them to life in this kind of way.
This study has very gently, I think, drawn on some very useful, important theoretical strands and I know from teaching social work, that the one thing that the student social workers get most uptight about is they know all this theory and then they are supposed to put it into practice, and it’s like how do we link all this theory we learned from the books to the practice we have to do day to day, and I think this study is a very, very good example of how the theory is kind of lived in what’s happening in the ordinary day to day. Some of you will be aware, way back, the good old Maslow’s theory of hierarchy of needs, there’s some basic needs you have to attend to before you worry about self actualisation and all the rest of it.
Now I know some very, very creative artists will be starving in a garret and they are still very self actualised and produce beautiful works of art, but for most of us it’s better to do it if you have got a bit of a full belly and you are not hungry and tired and cold, and we know that and so that was a theory that has been very influential and actually has been brought to life again I think in this study and I was thinking about that as I was hearing people talk about it.
The other theory that we all kind of know, you’ll have had lots of courses and training about it is Attachment Theory, and Attachment Theory, you can read about it, you can see it in the books, you can even see the videos about it, but it’s when you see it in life and you are living it, you begin to see how the theory is played out in practice. And what we heard today, particularly I think from Robbie, talking about the importance of care, is just how that theory is put into practice in the day to day caring aspects of providing food for somebody. And also children and young people can demonstrate the way their attachments play out in the way they respond to people. For some children who have had miserable lives, somebody being kind for them, they can’t cope with it and the way they reject, or fling back, sometimes literally, what is being offered to them is a very good illustration of how their attachments have been affected, so that tells you something. So this kind of study is the kind of study that brings to life some of the sort of what might seem more dry theory. And hearing from Robbie today I think was really, really helpful because as many of you will know, Robbie’s key contribution to theory has been around the kind of factors that are associated with building resilience in children. And children and young people who are looked after, both at home and away from home, what they are really needing is support to develop the features associated with resilience, which is associated with attachment, but it’s also associated with things like being able to have some kind of choice, being able to exercise a bit of autonomy, exercise a bit of control appropriately, have some sort of sense of cause and effect. There’s so many opportunities in food and eating and choices of food to enable children to develop senses of self efficacy, choice or control. I know from my field, which is my primary field, the research with is in child neglect, is the extent to which neglected children might never have been given any choices at all and if they meet someone in a nursery or a foster carer, or in a school, somebody who actually says to them ‘do you prefer orange squash or lemonade’, that might be the first time somebody has even suggested they might have a preference for something. For that member of staff it will be, they might not even kind of notice what they are doing, it’s just routine, it’s common sense. For the child it can make a huge difference and it can be a start of a sense that someone is relating to them as a person who might have some kind of preferences. So there are so many opportunities within this project, I think, for that research that talks about self efficacy, autonomy, choice, control actually to come to life in very simple questions like, do you prefer Pepsi or coke, do you prefer orange or apple, things like that.
The other theory I think that’s brought to life in this research is the importance of looking at this ecologically, and again you can read about Bromf and Mellors theory of ecology and there’s all these circles and diagrams and miso macro, words like that, but what we are talking about here is the layers of influence and what came out I think today was the importance of the individual interactions between the child and the person who is with them, between the children and the children, but also the wider organisational context, the family experiences and what the children have brought with them, and what I saw today, very clearly, particularly in the discussion at the table I was at, but I think it would probably be mirrored elsewhere, is the wider circle, the power of the organisational structures and what’s come through, I think, for many people is the frustration at the control that is exerted by organisations in their systems and processes like the mass delivery of food, the rules about timing of food, some places rules where you are not allowed to go to the shops with the children and things like that. And the frustration that’s coming from that I think, research like this gives people an avenue to channel that frustration to make well articulated, well evidence arguments for why things should be different and to base it on solid research. Not, ‘why can’t we go down the shops with the kids, it’s stupid’, we always say, ‘the evidence shows that it’s more effective in the long term for these children, their outcomes will be improved, you can tick your outcomes box’, everything and here is the evidence to prove it. So this kind of research will help you to actually make the case for the things that you knew anyway but you can underpin it with evidence. And it shows us the power of that ecological approach, looking at all the different layers of influence.
So there are some key insights from this research. There is the kind of recognition that food is a basic need and we don’t need to wrap it up in anything fancy, it’s actually a basic need, but also there’s a metaphorical and symbolic feature to it as well and if you look at how food is managed in any environment, you get a sense of how care is managed. It’s a very good window into the rest o the way in which things are dealt with in any kind of setting. Same for those people who may be working with children who are at home, living at home, how they have managed and dealt with it in their own home is also a very important window into the rest of their lives.
Sometimes children who have been through really difficult experiences, children and young people, can’t actually verbally articulate what they are feeling and thinking about things that have happened to them but they can certainly show it in their actions and their behaviours and the way in which they respond to everyday routines of care, including the way they may respond to food and how it is dealt with and how it is offered to them.
Food and the routine around food can be very helpful in helping children to recover from maltreatment. What we know from, particularly children who have been in very chaotic situations, never experienced any kind of routine, that having predictable routines can make such a big different to them and begin to build up a sense of predictability that somebody is there for you. And that becomes symbolic of a person who is going to be reliably available to you. Many young people who are looked after away from home have parents and other relatives who love them but are not reliable in the demonstration of that love, so they might still have that love from parents but they still need from somewhere in their environment, reliable expressions of routine responses to their needs and if you can get those things together, even if you get them from different places, it’s going to improve your chances of a better outcome.
It can be a very good way to explore other emotions and beliefs and feelings and again that came up from the discussion at our table, people felt that those materials would be helpful just to explore emotions and feelings with children, to have some third object in a way to work with, and there’s another term that we use in the theory, the use of third objects. Basically sitting down with someone with something else to fill in, a bit of paper, a picture to draw, something like that. And it helps to look at issues of power and control, who is exercising power and control over who and in what way and what that tells you about all the dynamics right up through the system.
The original study I think should inspire all of us, all of you, all of us to look again at the ordinary, the ordinary everyday and to see the opportunity for working alongside academics, so I would say let’s say … this is just one study, if there’s other ideas that you have for areas where you think as yet they haven’t really been look at in a systematic way, suggest them, bring them to us and we will look at ways in which we can develop research to help you, provide you with the evidence you need to make the cases you want to make for the things you want to do.
And this brings me to the next couple of just shorter strands, I will be shorter on this, the follow on study, which is what we are talking about today, Food for Thought, you have got the research, already the findings were constructed in a way that aimed to be helpful, but what you can do then is when you work alongside others to bring those findings to life and to develop tools for people to work with, but tools that you can be confident are underpinned with some evidence and research, so that you can take those materials away and feel confident that it’s underpinned by a solid knowledge base. And as you can see the materials cater for all different kinds of levels of experience and knowledge and all sorts of different settings, and I would say you could also use them with parents, with children who are living at home or children in kin care settings, for example. So it caters to all needs. It is interesting listening today, how many metaphors of food are used in language anyway, so you have Robbie trying to avoid using ‘taster’, somebody else was talking about ‘ingredients’, the language of food is there as we speak anyway and it links to the importance of our research having some kind of impact and you may be heartened to know that within the academic world there is now much, much more emphasis on the research that is funded by all of you and rightly, there is a requirement now that if people are spending this kind of money on research it needs to have some kind of impact, it has to have some kind of benefit. And we are being required to show that what we are doing is having some kind of impact. For us that was brilliant in our sort of fields because that’s what we were wanting to do anyway and again for us, we have been able to emerge from things that we might have been doing under the radar with our research, going out and doing talks about it, developing materials about it, now that is really legitimate, it’s important and more importantly it’s being funded. So if you have ideas for ways to maximise impact of research, that is the kind of thing for which there is actually funds available now. And it shows us that research doesn’t need to be remote.
And finally, looking at the process, which is really the process of partnership, I think you can always tell the importance of partnership when you see how many logos there are on the slides, and we had some logo-tastic slides today, didn’t we? Just showing how many people have come together to work on this kind of project, and it just shows the benefits of a partnership between academia and practice and other agencies.
I was also involved in an impact study like this which was around child neglect, and it’s very interlinked, I think, because one of the key issues in relation to children who are neglected is the extent to which that plays out in either underfeeding or overfeeding. So if you look at neglected children, they are often either very skinny or very obese, and children who have been neglected, who have been looked after away from home can get into hoarding, stealing, many of them won’t know how to use knives and forks, they have never sat at a table in their lives, so you are often starting at a very, very early stage with neglected children. And I found in that project that working with practitioners and exploring what are the bureaucratic things that get in the way of just some of your basic urge to reach out and help a child that seems unhappy was really, really important and really, really helpful.
So this project wouldn’t have happened without the coming together of academics, practitioners and young people, but it isn’t always straightforward. It is easier in a way for academics to kind of shut themselves away and read, I mean there’s no shortage of stuff to read, it’s also easy for practitioners to rush about and do, and in fact in practice, sitting, thinking is sometimes a very, very difficult thing to do because it’s seen as, oh you must not have enough to do if you are sitting thinking and reflecting, so the whole practice context is very much about rushing about and doing and it’s very easy for both academics and practitioners in various agencies to avoid attending to the experiences of children and young people, but to kind of swirl all around that without necessarily hearing the experiences of children and young people. And it’s also easy for people who are carers, foster carers, kin carers and residential workers to kind of get lost in the middle of all of that a bit. Sometimes colleagues, sometimes not quite colleagues, sometimes delivering training, sometimes on training, sometimes a bit in the middle, to what extent are their views heard and incorporated within research and development.
So the current buzz word is ‘co-production’, and as Laura said, that can be a little bit off putting but it does capture a kind of alchemy that can come when you bring together practice wisdom, which is the term that we heard earlier on, which is practice based evidence, when you bring that together with the academic research and then sprinkle in bits of the user lived experience, the day to day experience of the children and young people, then you can have a flash and a spark that produces something that’s much greater than some of those parts, and I think that was really evidenced today with the energy and liveliness there is about this topic, which clearly shows that there has been an alchemy here somewhere in this project, that has produced something that will live and continue forward. Really now, it’s over to you. Thank you.
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