Family sets the menu

May 25, 2007

Public advice on nutrition must consider the role of families, says Peter Jackson. Right, researchers give a taster of their work on different facets of the interaction between home and health.

The relationship between families and food is at the heart of public policy and media debate. Successive health scares, from BSE to bird flu, have undermined public confidence in food safety; childhood obesity has become the number one public health issue; and school meals have been revolutionised following Jamie Oliver's high-profile intervention. Yet, despite all the media attention and public interest in food, ordinary families seem remarkably reluctant to heed the advice of health professionals to exercise more and eat less sugar, salt and fat. A survey last year found that 67 per cent of UK consumers knew about the Food Standards Agency's advice to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day but only 30 per cent actually met the target.

Why adherents of healthy eating face such an uphill struggle in trying to change established patterns of diet and exercise is one of the questions behind the "Changing Families, Changing Food" research programme, which is based at Sheffield University and funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

The programme, which reports its preliminary findings at a conference in Sheffield this month, involves sociologists, psychologists, historians and geographers, as well as experts in public health from nutrition, nursing and midwifery. It combines statistical sources such as the Family Expenditure Survey with qualitative evidence from oral history archives and ethnographic fieldwork and spans the life-course from studies of pregnancy and motherhood through projects on children and young people, to research on families and the wider community.

The research challenges received ideas about food choice being down to individuals. Instead, it shows that the choices we make about what we buy, how we cook and what we eat are socially and culturally embedded in ways that make it very hard to achieve change quickly. Certainly, disposable income and factual knowledge affect the choices made, but so do social and cultural conventions.

Our evidence shows that advice from health practitioners, family members and popular media such as women's magazines has varied considerably over the years and is often inconsistent. At the same time, although families are not short of official information about what they are supposed to eat - with bodies such as the Food Standards Agency producing regular, up-to-date guidance - this advice has only limited impact.

We therefore need a radically different understanding of families and food, and official guidance that avoids blame while really making a difference. Such guidance needs to pay more attention to the diverse nature of contemporary family life, to acknowledge the differing domestic routines that affect how and what we eat, and to recognise that in a timeless, universal and socially undifferentiated sense there is no such thing as "the family".

Peter Jackson is director of the "Changing Families, Changing Food" programme. It consists of 15 projects, with one based at Royal Holloway, University of London and the others at Sheffield University. For more information, visit  familiesandfood

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