Transcript: Food for Thought. What it means in practice

Iriss talks to attendees at the Food for Thought launch event on 19 November 2013 talk about the project and the educational resources that emerged from it.

Podcast Episode: Food for Thought. What it means in practice

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.

RE - Ruth Edmond
RG - Robbie Gilligan

The routines and the rituals that surround food, shopping, preparing, cooking, serving, clearing up, are important parts of our lives, yet often we fail to recognise as symbolic or hidden meanings. 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 childcare. The project has created a variety of tools and training materials which encourage reflection and strengthen the use of knowledge about food and looked after children. On 19th of November 2013, about 80 people working in childcare, foster carers, residential care workers, academics and trainers gathered at the University of Stirling’s Iris Murdoch building to formally launch these training materials.

Ruth Edmond got proceedings underway before introducing keynote speaker, Professor Robbie Gilligan from Trinity College, Dublin.

RE Food, there’s something about it’s everydayness, that is so taken for granted that we kind of forget what significance food has for all of us and what it can stand for in terms of thoughts, actions beliefs, the work it can do for us to communicate a whole variety of different aspects of social life. So today really is all about that, all about what food can stand for and all about how as residential workers, foster carers, social workers, educationalists, how we might be able to tap into some of those symbolic means of connecting with other people, not just adult to child but adult to adult and how we can support each other through food and start to think much more deeply about what we are doing around food.

It was interesting, I was thinking yesterday about being in the Iris Murdoch building and I had a kind of vague memory of reading a few of Iris Murdoch’s novels. Iris Murdoch’s work is full of references to food, full of images of food, full of talk about how food can help people feel a sense of belonging, feel a sense of identity and connectedness to one another. So it feels really appropriate that we are actually in the Iris Murdoch building today where Iris is saying ‘my God, food is important.’ I am going to pass you now to Professor Robbie Gilligan, who has come over from Trinity College Dublin, and who is going to talk to us this morning about the context of care.

RG My task is to, I suppose, set in some context the work of this wonderful programme, Food for Thought, and to look how … in many ways food is something that’s very, very physical, material that we experience in so many different ways, but it’s also very powerful metaphor and I think the whole Food for Thought project is drawing attention both to the physical and the metaphorical importance of food in relationships and in the work of relationships and in caring. So I thought it would be good maybe to start, and I am following in Ruth’s footsteps, I can’t quite manage Iris Murdoch, actually that’s a pretty class introduction to not only have a good quote but a good quote from the person after whom the building is named, that’s pretty good I have to say … what I want to say is that relationships feed important hungers for children in care, I am sure there’s many ways I don’t need to say that to an audience like this, you are very sensitised do that, but that many children in care have deep questions, deep issues, deep anxieties, deep doubts about relationships, about the meaning that they hold for other people with whom they have potentially important relationships. But relationships also provide potentially very important memories, they also help to feed, very importantly, a sense of identity and a sense of belonging and I am going to explore those ideas just a little bit more.

Raymond Carver is an American writer, poet, hard living, hard drinking and I would say difficult and hard to live with, but nevertheless a very gifted writer who, at the end of his life wrote these words as he was dying of cancer, and apparently these are the very last words he wrote … ‘And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so? I did. And what did you want? To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.’ Now clearly many of the children and young people that you work with do have, share that really deep need to feel beloved that we all have, but maybe they also have very big questions as to whether in fact they have that sense of being beloved. This is a photograph of Raymond Gater, who is a very famous public intellectual in Australia, he is a professor of philosophy, but he comments on many issues of social importance and social concern, he was I suppose essentially a refugee after the second world war from Eastern Europe, he came as a child with his father and mother and some friends and relatives and they settled in rural Australia into a life of poverty, his father worked hard, his mother had serious mental health problems and essentially his father reared Raymond as a single parent, and Raymond went on to great success. His father however remained sceptical, his father was a man who believed in making things. The proof and value of a man, his achievement was the things he produced. Raymond’s father used to produce and make gates and do things like that, you could see the results of his efforts, and whatever his father would ask him, what do you do Raymond, philosophy sounded a little bit vague and fluffy. But anyhow, Raymond has gone on to be a very popular and thoughtful figure in Australian life and he has written a book about his childhood and about his relationship with his father, and I think again this extract underlines the importance of meaning of relationships. ‘On many occasions in my life I have had the need to say and thankfully have been able to say, I know what a good workman is, I know what an honest man is, I know what friendship is. I know, because I remember these things in the person of my father, in the person of his friend Hora, and in the example of their friendship’. Hora had come from the same community and worked with his father and helped his father in the business and in the family. The point about Raymond’s story I think is how powerful the memories are that he has been left with and how those inspire him as a man, they helped him in his childhood but they also inspire him in his adulthood.

So if we move from literature and autobiography to social science, we also have the very strong message that relationships are important These are comments from Finnish researchers who have spent a lot of time evaluating services, the impact of interventions, the impact of programmes, educational programmes, social services and children’s lives, and at the end of it all they conclude … and these are their words. ‘Although education and other societal services may have a prevent effect, it seems interestingly that much more paralyse in totally non institutionalised and non formal factors, such as close human relationships.’ Close human relationships. Now obviously services and systems create opportunities for those close human relationships, but it is the close human relationships that make a very big impact, the relationships make the impact in people’s lives, in children’s lives.

A different study looking at adults who had bad experiences with child abuse and child maltreatment in childhood and finding that the people who did better afterwards were those who had access to a good relationship experiences. It was those individuals among the adult survivors of childhood maltreatment, those individuals with good relationship experiences across different domains and across childhood, adolescence and adulthood who are particularly likely to demonstrate resilience. So again the message is coming from the poets, from the philosophers, from the social scientists, relationships are important.

John McGahern was a beloved writer from the West of Ireland, a small farmer, a teacher, a writer, a small farmer, a writer … in adulthood he interwove a life of farming and writing and I think in many ways his masterpiece was his last book, ‘That they may face the rising sun.’ A wonderful, wonderful book, very accessible, very thoughtful, very uplifting. And there’s a phrase in that, ‘what does love become but care’, and reflecting on that, ‘what does love become but care’, for this presentation, I also think that what does care become but food. In so many cultures, in so many contexts, what does care become but food. In Irish culture and I imagine also in Scottish culture, having lived here for some time and remembering the importance of a cup of tea, and those of you who have watched Father Ted would remember Mrs Doyle and the cup of tea, ‘will you have a cup of tea?’ the very first thing after ‘hello’, ‘will you have a cup of tea?’ and of course the Irish oh no, no, no, you say no 3 times and the you say yes, the cultural of rurals. So what does care become but food? Now the book is littered with many, many wonderful little gems, but this is a little exchange … ’the truth isn’t always useful, tell me what is, kindness, understanding, empathy maybe …’ in think in the truth there he is talking about science and technical understanding and so on, but really what’s more important are qualities like kindness and understanding, and if we can get to empathy maybe, but maybe that’s good show. So I think in many ways that phrase draws us to the bright side of relationships and indirectly I would suggest the potential of food as a code for communicating within relationships and as a way of communicating kindness, of communicating understanding, of communicating empathy maybe. But we all know we have been in this game long enough, we know there is also a dark side in relationships and in caring and that we often encounter that dark side in ourselves and in others, and so too in food and caring. As we know, caring generally has at its core, a relationship, there may be lots of infrastructure, lots of regulations, lots of frameworks, lots of policies, but we hope at its core is a personal relationship, a connection, a meaningful connection between 2 human beings, the carer and the person they are caring for, and hopefully there’s that connection, personal connection between the person providing food and the person receiving the food in the food and care relationship. And that the donor and the recipient, if you like, may find various meanings in the food and in the food relationship, meanings that may carry both positive and negative connotations and of course we know that what we intend as good may not be necessarily experienced as good by the other person and that’s also the case in food exchange.

So I think what the Food for Thought programme does is wonderfully to remind us how food is such a perfect code or prop for expressions of many aspects of human experience, for expressions of closeness or distance. The food practices are also an arena for the playing out of tensions between control and choice, tensions between the carer and the person cared for, so that food can express many things, it can express closeness, it can express distance, it can express affection, but also disaffection. So I think one of the things that the Food for Thought programme really emphasises in many ways and I don’t want to steal all of Sam Punch’s thunder in saying this but I hope it’s okay as a trailer … you know that there are may symbolic opportunities offered by food, opportunities to express many things, I have empathised a lot the idea of care and that food in so many cultures and contexts is an opportunity to express care, it’s also an opportunity to express nurture, to express and experience community, to celebrate community, to celebrate cultural identity, the different cultures that have different relationships to food, different traditions, different ways of celebrating communally food, food events and food experiences. It’s also a wonderful avenue for creativity, for personal creativity for people to show, to express themselves through the creation of meals and dishes and so on. But food can also be a mechanism for control, both by the person providing the food, setting very strict rules about when and how and what and so on, and where, but it may also be an opportunity for the person receiving the food to respond in kind and of course we have many historic and more immediate examples of that in things like anorexia or hunger strikes and so on that resistance is also part of the dynamic of food relations. Many food experiences may bring people closer together but there is also in many cases, distancing involved in the provision of food and I will explore some of that in a moment. Very important issue in food experience is choice, whether people have a choice and whether people get the choices they would like and what they can do if they don’t like something and so on. In many contexts we find people carrying responsibility for care, how they carry that duty of care, that responsibility of care, or that ethic of care depends very much on their values and on the values of the organisational systems around them, so you can find institutions and services and organisations that provide wonderfully positive care and you can also find organisations that lack a commitment to humane care. Now I would hope that we all in this room share a commitment to humane caring, to caring that’s based on a sense of the importance of the relationship between the person caring and the person being cared for and that that relationship is lived out through lived experiences, not just an aspiration, it’s not just on paper but it’s a lived experience. And I would suggest that food inhumane caring in that perspective becomes not just a product, something that you serve up, so that you can tick a box that yes we did serve food, we did provide meals, so it’s not just a product, but hopefully a shared and positive process that is experienced as a shared and positive process. So the great importance of a positive spirit on the part of the carer and provider in relationship, obviously to caring, but particularly in relation to the food experience.

Okay, just want to bring this down to earth a little bit, this is an example I came across yesterday, a former student of mine telling me a story about a 9 year old boy in foster care who is in a process, or has been in the process of long recuperation after a serious medical difficulty, so this involves him spending a lot of time with the foster mother at home, and one of the highlights of these times together is the time spent each day as the foster mother and he bake for the children who are in the foster home but out at school, in anticipation of them coming home. He absolutely loves that time, both the attention, the shared experience, the making of things, the scent of the food, the physical experience of preparing it and so on, this is a hugely positive influential experience for this boy. So not just tasting the food at the end of the process as a product, so not just eating the cake or the biscuit or whatever it is, but also being part of the process of producing it and the anticipation and the enjoyment and the relationship involved in that. So I think this example reminds us of food as a rich source of positive, emotional connections, a rich source of positive, emotional experiences and a rich source of positive, emotional memories. I think it’s safe to say that that boy will have those memories or those times in his foster care deep in his memory bank for the rest of his life, and probably what we are about most of all in our work and caring is to give children positive memories that they can readily call up from their childhood experience. That is the challenge of caring, ultimately.

Now it’s important to look at the bright and the dark side all the time and to acknowledge the dark side, to acknowledge the shadow side of food practices and how we can slip into something very much less positive, something very much less humane and I fear that we are, in many countries, facing pressures in this direction as we are introduced to the realities of austerity and mass cuts in public spending, but the reality in many institutions I think, whether you have dispersed groups that food is prepared in some central kitchen and in a very disconnected, and essentially I think, disaffected way, food is delivered in silver trays to be dispersed to the people who live in groups long away from the kitchen, and this industrial model of food preparation and delivery totally I think emasculates any concept of humane caring. And this is symbolised even to the extent of the food that’s served to people, probably unrecognisable as to what it actually is, tasting very remotely like what it should be tasting like and served in silver wrapped trays perhaps. I mean what more can we … how more powerfully can we symbolise a lack of humane caring about the most basic and elemental of forms of caring that’s deep, deep in our culture.

Third example, these are all real examples, I know we are here for, this is the children’s meeting isn’t it, yes, but I am allowed to mention something about dementia, because it’s relevant I think, this is a story about baking a Christmas cake in a residential unit for older people with dementia. Now 9 times out of 10 that would probably mean somebody thinking, oh we must bake a Christmas cake and baking it in the kitchen and maybe the only kind of sign of this happening, both might be the smell of the baking and then perhaps the cake appearing at some point in probably small slices. But this is a lovely piece, simple piece of practice, doesn’t cost any more money, it’s just about the imagination of humane caring. The cake was prepared, not in the kitchen but in the living room as a communal process with everyone watching and participating in discussion and remembering the times past when they too had their way of making the Christmas cake. Food preparation itself as a community experience, not just the food consumption and the meal together. I think all of the people in that room would have felt very much included and valued and treasured and would have had warm memories to hold from that moment, but also be allowed through that experience to tap into other warm memories.

The fourth example, and I am pleased to acknowledge somebody who’s memory should be re-evoked from time to time, Nancy Hazel, who in the last 70’s was a pioneer of special foster care in the UK, she ran the Kent Family Placement Service, which I think was the very first attempt to bring to the UK ideas that had developed in places like Sweden and Nancy had gone out very characteristically in her dogged and determined and enthusiastic way and badgered people into supporting the development of something like this in Britain. And she was very good at the work, she was very good at managing the work, but she was also very clear that it was very important to spread the word, and that it was also important to evaluate. So she did promote evaluation of her products and she wrote up the human story in a very accessible way. And one of the memories for me from her work is the story of a foster carer who received a young woman into the special project who had a lot of difficulties and the carer had listened carefully to the story of the young woman before she arrived, you know the story as told in various ways to her, and one of the points about this young woman was that there was one, she really only ate one thing, let’s say it was baked beans, so the woman very theatrically and very symbolically and very powerfully filled her kitchen cupboards with baked beans and when the young woman arrived and as she was showing her around the house, one of the things she did was to open the cupboards and say, I know you like baked beans. I think the message the young woman would have got from that I think would have been very positive.

Now in caring systems and services that I know about there’s a lot of discussion about the importance of how child maltreatment experiences may affect children in various sensory ways in terms of their perceptual capacity through their different senses, and people are exploring the potential of different ways of helping to restore perceptual and sensory capacity and using various exercises and material and media to achieve that and sometimes developing what might be called sensory rooms, which promote these opportunities. But I have to say in many ways I am not discounting that but I would say that we shouldn’t lose sight of the kitchen, that in many ways it seems to be the kitchen, deep in our culture, the kitchen is the ultimate sensory room, what senses are not touched in a profound way by what goes on in the kitchen? And it seems to me that what goes on in the kitchen also has great potential to carry on into the future, the power of memories, of good memories in the kitchen being laid down in children and the strong chance that those positive memories will be played out in their time as parents with their children. And what a wonderful legacy to pass down the generations. So I really would stress I think the importance of the kitchen as the ultimate sensory room, and food in many ways is the ultimate caring resource, and as John McGahern says, ‘what does love become, but caring’. And I think in all our cultures, we can draw on a very deep well in relation to food as a form of care and hospitality, hospitality, there’s a word that has got lost I think, or we don’t pay enough attention to.

I had the privilege this year in March to visit Moldova, which is a small country just on the border with Russia, it used to be part of the Soviet Union, it’s now an independent republic, it’s very, very poor, impoverished by Russian might and political might in many ways and if you think things are bad in your own context, Moldova has basically a crumbling road infrastructure that they have very little prospect of restoring and even public transport has more or less disappeared because the government can no longer afford to subsidise it so just … but in this context you still have this wonderful spirit of the people who are in service and systems and in their family life, still retain a fantastic spirit and commitment and energy and conviction, and on one of the evenings I was welcomed to experience some hospitality, a family meal shared with people from different generations and different relations and so on, a family meal prepared of welcome, prepared with joy, with pride and also with a few nerves welcoming the visitor from overseas or from abroad, one could see on the surface Moldova as being poor, but it had a culture of wealth in terms of understanding and appreciation and enjoyment, a communal enjoyment of food and togetherness. For me that is perhaps the point to end what I am talking about, the power of food to serve as a bonding mechanism, to bring us together in a communal positive way, but also of course we have to recognise that it’s not always the bright side, there is, as in all relationships, in all experiences, the potential for the shadow side. I want to say congratulations to the Food for Thought team, but I would also caution you, that since you have such a good idea, that today should be much more a beginning than an ending. Thanks very much indeed.

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