Dissertation Project: Health and Family Foodwork

My dissertation project is situated within the intersections of food, family and health. Entitled “Health and Cooking in Value and Practice: A Mixed Methods Study of Food in Family Life”, this research explores the meanings that people attribute to food work, in order to learn how food values become translated (or not) into practices for people living in diverse social positions. The goal of this research is to examine how healthy eating is embedded in unequal social structures and individual interactions, while simultaneously recognizing the existence of an obesogenic foodscape that shapes how and why we cook. I approach my research with multiple methods, applying interviews, participant observation, statistical data analysis, and a discourse analysis. This research is conducted under the supervision of Josée Johnston, with Shyon Baumann and Melissa Milkie as additional committee members. Research began on this project in the summer of  2016. It is composed of three papers:

Paper I

This paper utilizes critical discourse analysis and quantitative content analysis to examine North America national news media’s presentation (2015 – 2016) of “deteriorating” family meals: those whereby families are increasingly replacing meals made with whole, unprocessed ingredients consumed communally around a dinner table, with processed and pre-prepared foods eaten alone or “on the go”. I find that this media predominately frames the production of healthy family meals as constrained by a food environment saturated with inexpensive, highly processed food, and the competing demands of paid work and inflated normative standards. Yet, when differentiating frames that define the social problem from those that offer solutions for resolving it, it is in frames that target solutions where individualization prevails. Analyzing these frames, I argue that neoliberal ideology that over-emphasizes individual agency and minimizes structural constraint seems most effective when it is subtle — demonstrating some awareness of the difficulty of people’s lives, but then prescribing solutions that still leave individuals responsible for their own outcomes. These findings hold implications for understanding dominant cultural values surrounding health and the family meal, as well as the allocation of responsibility for social problems within neoliberalism more broadly.

Paper II

Key to understanding inequalities in family meal production is attention to how people learn to cook. Yet learning to cook entails not only skill instruction, but also socialization into normative cooking practice. This study employs the concept of schemas to analyze the role that cultural frameworks play in shaping peoples’ interpretations of food learning. Drawing from a discourse analysis of news media coverage of family meals (2015 – 2016) and qualitative interviews and observations with 34 respondents who consider themselves primary cooks in their families, I identify the ubiquity of a “cooking by our mother’s side” schema in contemporary understandings of food learning: that which forefronts learning occurring within childhood and adolescence, chiefly accomplished through the social reproductive work of mothers. I argue that this schema is powerful but problematic because it buttresses gendered inequalities in family meal production by reinforcing women as primary cooks and transmitters of cooking knowledge. I also find that this schema overemphasizes the importance of early periods in food learning while concealing learning occurring later in the lifespan. An interrogation of the “cooking by our mother’s side” schema therefore offers opportunities for reorienting our understanding of food learning and challenging gendered inequalities in domestic foodwork.

Paper III

Paper III deploys a quantitative analysis of data from the American Time Use Survey alongside interviews and observations with 34 primary cooks in the Toronto area to explore how the emotional experience of cooking varies across intersections in social positions such as gender, income, race/ethnicity. Here, qualitative research offers analytic expansion to the population level patterns identified in the quantitative analysis, ultimately producing a mixed methods examination of how people differentially experience the act of cooking for a family.