Food has many different functions. On a physical level, it is needed to survive and to maintain health, but it also has many social, psychological, and emotional meanings. For example, food is used to build relationships, to mark hierarchies, to celebrate holidays, and to influence mood and self-image. Different foods have different cultural meanings, and people are socialized from an early age to recognize and utilize their symbolic value.
One arena where food occupies a central position is the Swedish school subject Home and Consumer Studies (HCS), which focuses on both the physical and the psychosocial dimensions of food-related health. Since these dimensions are not always compatible, the aim of this dissertation was to explore how students and teachers of HCS use big ‘D’ Discourses to talk about and handle food, with a special focus on vegetables, meat, vegetarian food, and sweet foods.
Fifty-nine students and five teachers were observed, recorded, and in some cases video-taped. Participants’ talk about vegetables, meat, vegetarian food, and sweet foods was transcribed verbatim and analysed for big ‘D’ Discourses.
Students mostly based their choice of vegetables on sensory and cultural Discourses. Some vegetables were mandatory and others were optional, depending on whether or not they were part of a recipe or a cultural tradition. The health Discourse was only used if a specific assignment demanded it, and was closely tied to the evaluation Discourse.
Contrary to the sometimes optional status of vegetables, meat was seen as central in the sensory, cultural, health, and social Discourses. Therefore the reduction of meat could be problematic. It was regarded as simultaneously healthy and unhealthy, and it could elicit disgust, but whenever participants talked about decreasing meat consumption, its centrality was invoked as a counterargument.
As an extension of this, vegetarian food was seen as ‘empty’, deviant, and an unattainable ideal. Access to vegetarian food was limited for meat-eaters, and vegetarians were othered in both positive and negative ways. When vegetarian food was cooked during lessons, it was constructed as something out of the ordinary.
Sweet foods could be viewed as a treasure, as something dangerous and disgusting, or as an unnecessary extra. Home-made varieties were seen as superior. Sweet foods gave social status to both students and teachers, and they could be traded or given away to mark relationships and hierarchies, but also withheld and used to police others.
In summary, two powerful potential opposites met in the HCS classroom: the Discourses of normality (sensory, cultural, and social Discourses), and the Discourses of responsibility (health and evaluation). Normality could make physically healthy food choices difficult because of participants’ social identity, the conflicted health Discourse, and too-strict ideals. On the other hand, some people were excluded from normality itself, notably vegetarians, who were seen as deviant eaters, and teachers, who had to balance state-regulated goals in HCS against local norms.
To counteract such problems, teachers can 1) focus on sensory experiences, experimental cooking methods, and already popular foods, 2) challenge normality by the way they speak about and handle different types of food, 3) make cooking and eating more communal and socially inclusive, 4) explore the psychosocial dimension of health on the same level as the physical dimension, and 5) make sure they do not grade students’ cultural backgrounds, social identities, or taste preferences. This might go some way towards empowering students to make informed choices about food and health. However, scant resources of things like time, money, and equipment limit what can be achieved in the subject.