How creative food activities can promote self-care

by Dr Clare Pettinger

17 May 2019

This blog post is part of our Summer Showcase series, celebrating our free festival of ideas for curious minds.

Everyone has a story to tell about food. What’s your earliest food memory? What’s your favourite food? What’s your least favourite food? These outwardly simple questions can be the beginning of relating a personal food journey, which is often highly meaningful and revealing.

What is the weirdest food you have ever eaten? Questions about food can be a catalyst for personal and meaningful conversations.
What is the weirdest food you have ever eaten? Questions about food can be a catalyst for personal and meaningful conversations.

Our relationship with food

Food is an emotive subject: we love it, we hate it; we over-eat, we under-eat; we offer hospitality with it, we punish ourselves by depriving ourselves from it. Food has been described as “a maker of class, culture and civilisation”. The symbolic potential of food is so powerful that it is central to our identity, both individually, and collectively, as a society. Food is omnipresent, yet its very presence is peppered with contradictions – we are bombarded with its clever marketing and over-abundance, yet many people still struggle to put food on the table.

At the same time as being policed to eat less (or to follow the most recent celebrity-endorsed clean fad diet), we grow ever fatter and consequently, sicker. We have lost our true connection with food, mainly due to our ‘no longer fit for purpose’ industrial food system, which fails the people most in need. With hunger shamefully a topic of national debate in the UK, there is an urgent need to get creative with the way we tackle social inequalities.

Getting involved in food can be a starting point to address other things that are ‘broken’ and lead to progress in other ways.

– (quote from homeless shelter keyworker).

Sharing food stories to start conversations about wellbeing

My research is all about finding creative ways to engage with people to share their food stories, providing them with a safe space to do so and giving them a voice to express their food experiences. My project Food as a Lifestyle Motivator explored the use of creative approaches to engage with ‘harder to reach’ individuals in discussions about their wellbeing. Food, as well as being central to many health concerns, may also be a powerful ‘lifestyle motivator’ – a catalyst for change for those on the edges of society. During the project, powerful visual and narrative food-themed data were generated that provided a ‘voice’ for individuals, challenging traditional research paradigms and identifying innovative approaches for engaging and empowering community groups that are traditionally ‘harder-to-reach’.

Food dialogue activity
Food dialogue activity

The ‘photo dialogue activity’ is often used as an ice breaker – it involves participants selecting, from a range of food photographs, two images: one representing ‘like’, the other ‘dislike’. Discussion then ensues, which can be facilitated, structured, or free-form. In effect, the images become a vehicle for discussions using standardised questioning to start the conversation on wellbeing.

Creative approaches for engaging and empowering harder-to-reach groups

Creative approaches are constantly evolving. In my research, I’ve used short films and collaging with community groups such as homeless individuals, women with drug addictions and mental health sufferers so that the attendees can discover the power of creative food dialogues. The conversations ignited by these approaches can set foundations for future wellbeing work.

Cooking Beat the Demons in my head, from Fotonow CIC on Vimeo

Cooking Beat the Demons in my Head is a short film developed through my research using a photo elicitation approach. Photo-Elicitation involved my participants being provided with disposable cameras and taking pictures, over a ten day period, of their food interactions. Their photos were then developed and used within focus group discussions. It is thought that such visual techniques can ‘evoke deeper elements of consciousness’ than words alone. Allowing participants to generate their own images can promote engagement with research and provide insight into ‘street level’ experience for policy makers. The photographs are seen as a neutral third party and is particularly useful when discussing issues with ‘vulnerable’ people. The transcripts generated from this approach were then analysed using the Voice Centred Relational Method (VCRM). VCRM is an analytical approach which acknowledges that selves are interrelated through a web of psychological and social complexity. It’s a way of dealing with very extensive and complex conversational transcripts generated as part of the photo elicitation process.

In this video, four ‘I-Poems’ were narrated by service users that draw on statements incorporating “I, we and you” made in response to images during the photo elicitation. By extracting these statements from the transcripts, we can make more accessible the power of the narrative – creating simple, powerful and authentic truncated statements, which become I-Poems. This film consolidates the importance of strong innovative collaborative partnerships, involving experts with lived experiences of poverty working alongside researchers, local organisations and other networks, to tackle issues of social justice.

Collage activities
Collage activities

Collage, or visual mind mapping, is an important arts-based method for engagement and empowerment. Food makes a perfect central theme for our participants’ collage making, whereby meanings associated with the images when put side by side can offer the emergence of new narrative constructions and powerful food and wellbeing dialogues.

Food activities as an expression of empowerment

My interest is in the way in which arts-based methods – including photography, film and collage (and others yet to be explored!) – can help reveal and give voice to perspectives on food issues, which remain otherwise absent from research and policy debates. The use of such creative measures with our participants has shown that food can have a positive effect, acting as a catalyst to connect people. This generates a virtuous circle in which food promotes engagement and engagement promotes interest in self-care.

We illustrate the potential of food activities to become an expression of empowerment, effectively harnessing energy, vision and skills development. In this way, we can enhance social inclusion and capability, thus building stronger community connections. This represents a progressive solution to social inequalities, one which involves ‘co-productive’ philosophies seeing people as assets and tackling issues of power and equality. This can in turn build social and cultural capital with marginalised communities.

Dr Clare Pettinger is a Lecturer in Public Health Dietetics at the University of Plymouth. Her project was funded by a BA / Leverhulme Small Research Grant in 2015. Find #LetsShareFoodStories on Twitter for updates on her project @DrCPettingerRD.

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