Transcript: Food for Thought. The food and care study

Professor Samantha Punch of the University of Stirling, and one of the lead investigators on Food for Thought, summarises the original research project - the Use of Food and Food Practices in Residential Child Care in Scotland.

Podcast Episode: Food for Thought. The food and care study

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.

SP - Samantha Punch

Professor Samantha Punch of the University of Stirling summarised the original research project, the use of food and food practices in residential child care in Scotland. This project gave rise to the Food for Thought project. She describes the research questions, the findings and how they set about putting the findings into practice.

SP … on a very broad thing, we weren’t interested in nutrition and healthy eating or eating disorders and whilst these things are important and they may have emerged as important, that wasn’t our key focus. We just wanted to look at food in a very every day sense of how do people do food in their everyday lives, so we used this term ‘food practices’, basically which just means how we do food on a daily basis. What are people’s interactions around food like, how is food used from thinking about the shopping, doing the shopping, preparing it and then those very small gestures, such as making a cup of tea, what does that really mean, how do we feel about that? And certainly we found that by reflecting on food practices, it enabled people to really think about how the residential unit was functioning, it gave us a really good insight into the inner life of a care home.

We had then five key research questions that we started with, the first one was in social organisation, so just how is food organised, how is it provided, what are the daily food routines in residential care. We were interested in interactions both within and between generational groups, so the obvious thing that we wanted to look at was how food was done between children and adult staff, but we were also interested in how children did food with other children but also importantly, how staff did food with other staff. So it was about interactions between the generations as well as across them, and we wanted to get different perspectives on it as we … we are assuming that people did come to food differently and from different perspectives.

We are also very much interested in care and control around food and how food is used in relation to power, can it be used as punishment or reward, the symbolic meanings behind power and also how food can be important in terms of identities. But particularly I suppose we were interested in this symbolic meaning of food that Robbie has been talking about. How food can be used to express feelings without having to say it, we can do care without having to say certain things that can sometimes be difficult to express.

So just very briefly, I won’t bore you with the methods behind it all, but basically Nika went out and visited 3 residential care homes, we have obviously changed the names to protect peoples identities, we have called them Walton, Highton and Lifton, different care homes in different parts of Scotland and Nika spent 3 months at each of those care homes. It was impractical to stay over but she basically went in at all different times of the day to observe during breakfast, lunchtime, dinner time, even late at night, she was there at weekends as well as during the week. So spending a lot of time just hanging out, observing meal times, just seeing how food is done in every day lives. And then towards the end of that 3 month period in each home, she conducted individual interviews with children and staff as well as focus group interviews with groups of children and groups of staff. So in total, 16 children took part in an interview and 46 members of staff across the 3 care homes, so it was very indepth and exploratory kind of research.

So the key themes then that emerge as important, obviously top of the list as Robbie has already talked about, the importance of food and relationships and I will be saying a bit more about that now. This very fine relationship, this balancing act between food as being caring but also being perceived as something quite controlling, and control is not necessarily bad but isn’t always received … food isn’t always received by children in the way that staff members intended it to be. And then the very contentious time of meal times, as Robbie says, ’there’s a dark side to food,’ and mealtimes can often reflect that dark side when you bring everyone together. It can also reflect the good side, the bright side that is often these tensions are played out around mealtimes. We also found what was really interesting about food practices is that a residential home is trying to negotiate and juggle these 3 different spaces. It’s a home for the children, it’s a workplace for staff and it is also an institution with rules and regulations, particularly in relation to health and safety. And things like this can be really tricky, how do you manage the safety and the needs of the group, but how do you also cater for individual preferences. And that sort of, we found was a tricky balancing act, juggling all these 3 things with different aims at play. And then our other key areas of themes were how feelings are played out through food and how that can relate to notions of power and empowerment. I think food can be important in terms of relationships for 2 key reasons. Firstly because actively showing care has become increasingly prescribed within the residential care setting. The use of physical affection has become very much regulated, so food then is often perceived to be a very safe medium to demonstrate emotional care, as Eddie suggests. I think within the residential world there is only so many ways you can show care and food is one of them, a lot of other things have been taken away. And the second reason that food is important in relation to relationships is through the symbolic use of food, through not only doing care but saying care without having to actually articulate it. So as Robbie said, the importance of the cup of tea in Scotland, very important, it’s a caring gesture and if a staff member says to a child ‘would you like a cup of tea’, because they have clearly had a rough day at school, that’s a nice, caring act. But that’s not all it’s about, it’s about, does that member of staff remember that Johnny likes lots of milk and 2 sugars, or does that staff member have to ask, and it’s a really important message to the young person in care if the staff member doesn’t have to ask, because they’ve bothered to go beyond their paid job and to remember the individuality of that child and how they like their cheese on toast, or the fact that they like hot chocolate rather than a cup of tea, etc. For children this was a really important gesture that showed that they were valued and loved and cared for and this is important for children in a context where care is normally paid for and duties and responsibilities are prescribed and regulated.

And food can also be used very much in the making and doing of relationships and I think this quote illustrates this quite nicely by Rachel. I think again it comes back to showing that you care, that you are willing to put out that extra effort to make something that they specifically like. ‘And like Cary-Anne, she likes her eggs cooked in a very specific way. I can think of ways she has gone off at me and she has been really violent and horrible. You have that conversation then, are you hungry, it’s lunchtime, what are you wanting? Oh I don’t like any of this, I don’t like it. Right, what would you like, would you like an egg?’ And it’s that kind of dialogue of the shared experience of making up, and then she will do a bit and I will do a bit and we will come back together and we will build our relationship back from her yelling at me and calling me very awful thing under the sun, so it’s been used to help make up. So food then can be used as a means of overcoming a number of interpersonal and also institutional barriers within the residential home.

So food emerged then as a very important medium through which care can be communicated, but food practices can also be shrouded in ambivalence and ambiguity, so for example we often found that there was a mismatch between how staff intended a caring gesture to be given, but children’s interpretation of that, and the most obvious reoccurring example was in relation to meal times. Many staff in residential care felt that it was really important for children to come together at the table, to have that shared experience of regular mealtimes which offered stability, routine, security, it was family like, it was loving, caring. But children didn’t always interpret fixed, regular mealtimes in that way, they sometimes felt it was more staff trying to assert their power and control, that it was very inflexible, that it was too rigid, and they sometimes interpreted that as staff being controlling rather than caring, particularly if they were having a difficult time, they felt there should be some flexibility, did they always have to come to the mealtime at the table to eat their food, could there ever be exceptions, could there be flexibility if they were having a difficult time in relation to other issues.

So from the children’s point of view, there was often a very fine line between care and control. They agreed that control was a good thing in many instances, that their access to snacks had to be controlled to some extent because they felt that that was good for them, but sometimes they felt that there was a need for greater flexibility and that it was important for staff to listen to their views in relation to this. So we found that one thing of the project that was quite important is that we weren’t just listening to children’s views, but we were also listening to staff views and we were trying to build the dialogue between the 2.

So as I said, mealtimes is a key site of ambiguity and ambivalence and we found that it can have a very duel edged nature. Sometimes it was the best times of the day, it was fun, it was educational, it was happy, bringing people together, chatting, quite informal. Other times the dark side would emerge, tensions in the group, sometimes aggressive behaviour, so meal times could be on the one hand every unpredictable, but on the other hand they could create a sense of trust and closeness between people. So all these things that Robbie was talking about, closeness, distancing, could be played out at the dinner table. There could be intimate times of closeness and sharing or more formal difficult times when people feel watched and powerless. And that wasn’t just the children, particularly new members of staff sometimes felt very uncomfortable at the mealtimes too, so both staff and children could feel sometimes that it was surveillance, food was at times of surveillance, rather than necessarily times of fun and sharing and coming together in a bonding way.

So as we found then, there were a lot of complicated feelings expressed through food and it wasn’t just around comfort eating, as Carrie-Anne says, ‘sometimes when I am in a bad mood, I complain, but if I am in a good mood, then I will come in and say, okay, or I will just make up an excuse and say I am not hungry.’ So when looked after children initiate conflict around food or if the engage in acts of resistance, it can be understood in terms of their emotional needs, it’s not necessarily a desire to undermine staff. So due to their past experiences and their move into care, looked after children can experience a range of difficult emotions, fear, anxiety, disappointment, guilt, shame, sadness, etc, and one of the things they can look to is food which can enable them to try and suppress or replace those distressing feelings. As we seen then, this can become very much entangled then with notions of control and power, as Eric says, ‘sometimes staff may say no because they can, or a young person might consistently ask because really they are just fighting against the sense that their environment is controlled.’ So food can function then as a safe outlet for anger which is within children’s control and food can offer a means to articulate feelings which were difficult to identify or talk about. And sometimes for staff it was possible to go beyond the food metaphor and then actually then address those feelings more directly, as Iris says, ’look I have been watching you the now, you have been in and out the kitchen munching away at night, is there something bothering you?’

So just to sum up some of this in terms of possible policy and practice implications, we found that by looking at food you can often see how a residential home is functioning, we can learn a lot by looking at food practices, and that food can be a useful tool to demonstrate care, but it isn’t always interpreted in that way by all people at the same time. We saw that food then is very central to the building and sustaining of relationships and that there’s no magic method, this was quite an important message of our research, there’s no right way to do food, there’s many different ways of doing mealtimes, doing snacks, doing chores after mealtimes etc, as someone said ‘residential work is not black and white, there’s lots of grey areas’, and it’s about embracing that complexity and understanding the diversity and recognising that food interlinks with many aims of care, but not necessarily in a straightforward manner.

So when we finished the project then, we went back to our original research participants to get them to help us design these, because this was our academic attempt at trying to be more accessible and do something that was useful to carers, and when we went back to one of the care homes they said that they had changed their practices as a result of being involved in the project. As the first quote says, it says ‘as a staff team we had to spend some time until we came to an agreement amongst ourselves, what’s more important, kid has a decent meal or to sit down at the table? I believe we got much better at it, I am glad we have moved away from that forced, you have to sit at the table.’ And as Sally goes on to say, ‘I think when you first started this, we were all saying, the meal times are great, we are all sitting down and this is what we are all doing, but that was us, but with you here we actually started to question is it about us or is it about the kids?’ and as Nicole said, ‘I think we have become more sensitive to the reasons why some people won’t eat at the table and we are more knowledgeable about what food means.’

So this is when we decided that maybe this wasn’t enough, because people were saying to us, this is great, it was good, it was useful, but it’s still thick and heavy isn’t it, and it’s still academics basically disseminating their findings to practitioners, and people said we actually want something that’s a bit more accessible, bit more relevant, a personal working conditions, and that’s when we got together with our partners, we applied for some more money, we came up with Food For Thought, all of us got together as the partners to have 3 key objectives. To promote awareness of the symbolic use of food, to broaden it out as well to other carers, so to include foster care and make it relevant to foster care, not just residential care, also to see how it could actually make a difference to children and young peoples lives, because that’s what we are really all here for.

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