Moving beyond nutrients : nurturing young people's social health and school connectedness through food : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Health Promotion at Massey University, Wellington, New Zealand
Social health is emerging as an important component of health in the 21st century. Food plays a central role in social health on a daily basis, and contributes to the overall quality of life. Despite being deeply intertwined with social life; food practices and social health are rarely researched in health promotion. Young people are often a focus in food studies, yet less often is their social health within this realm explored. A comprehensive settings-based health promotion approach, as a promising strategy for addressing future health challenges, embraces an ecological and holistic perspective by acknowledging the interconnectedness between people and their environments; with schools being key sites for promoting young people’s health. This thesis integrates these perspectives and frames food practices as important for social health by investigating the ways in which food practices foster school connectedness in young people.
A critical ethnographic methodology was used to explore in depth everyday food practices within a school setting. One year of fieldwork was carried out in an all-girls secondary school in New Zealand, and included participant observation and interviews as key data collection techniques. This approach gave insight into the habitual, everyday food practices within the school, and allowed the observation and attendance of school food events throughout the year, thereby incorporating seasonal variability and celebratory customs. The participants included 16 to18-year-old students and their teachers.
The thesis highlights that food practices play a vital role in social health, and are tacit but important vehicles for young people’s social relationships. The findings show that food rituals enable young people to establish, maintain, and strengthen peer relationships in everyday interactions. The findings also suggest that food practices foster young people’s school connectedness. Food practices in class- or school-bound structures contribute to school connectedness through enabling people to see their common humanity, creating an
informal environment, encouraging sharing, enabling inclusive participation, demonstrating sacrifice of time and effort, and allowing people to experience diversity. The results show how food practices can influence social health in a single setting, and suggest how the existing health-promoting schools framework can utilise food practices for social health gains. The findings support the value of a whole-school approach to health by highlighting the interconnectedness and synergies that may arise from a holistic approach in settings-based health promotion.
Overall this research suggests that focusing on social health aligns with health promotion goals and values, and indicates that deliberate health promotion activities related to food have the potential to contribute to social health dimensions. This thesis makes practical and theoretical advances in health promotion. Theoretically the thesis provides evidence for the benefits of viewing food practices through a social lens that extends how food is traditionally researched in health promotion, and proposes a way forward for holistic nutrition promotion. Social health, it is argued, forms a valid independent component of health alongside mental and physical health that is worthy of exploring in food studies. The research also contributes to health promotion practice by systematically exploring the potential for settings-based approaches and offering insight into food practices within a key setting for youth health promotion. This thesis provides an important contribution for understanding the mechanisms by which school food practices may contribute to school connectedness as a protective factor for young people’s overall health and educational achievement.