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What Does Food Have to Do With Belonging and Schools?

The answer might surprise you.

Key points

  • Food, and the traditions and rituals that surround it, are linked to feelings of belonging and bonding.
  • Food can be problematic for students with additional needs, low SES backgrounds, eating disorders, allergies, or parents with mental illness.
  • Understanding the relationship between belonging and food needs further research to tap into sociocultural nuances through a lens of inclusion.

Belonging is an important human need. It brings a sense of wellbeing, and this is just one of the benefits when we feel we belong somewhere. For adolescents, "school belonging" is an important part of their mental health. When we try to sort out the strategies and approaches that build belonging, it can look complex as there is an array of factors at play. Some revolve around family structure, traditions, roles, and responsibilities, and even what we eat. The role of food in a sense of belonging has received limited attention but food is often claimed to be the glue that holds many families together and pivotal to many cultural communities. How does this relate to what happens in schools? Could food also be important in schools beyond the nutritional sense?

Read on to explore how food may help students develop a feeling of community at school.

What is the role of food in achieving a sense of belonging?

School belonging is defined as feeling accepted, safe, and respected within the social, cultural, and physical surroundings of a school (Allen, 2020). Students who have a sense of belonging feel comfortable at school, feeling that they “fit in." While belonging is a universal human need, and food is a basic survival need, the interplay between belonging and food is an important relationship to understand.

According to Betty Chetcuti, psychologist and author of My Vegan Cookbook, one of the most important parts of her job is building connections and one way she does this is through food. As Chetcuti explains it:

Betty Chetcuti, used with permission
Source: Betty Chetcuti, used with permission

“Connection begins with taking care of ourselves, spending time with loved ones, and the making and sharing of food is often central to these relationships. It can involve great discussions together about creative recipe ideas and decorations of the dinner table, the way we collectively care for the soil, water, and composting of garden scraps to grow our food eg in community gardens and in our family kitchen gardens; the markets where we buy our produce, along with the sights and sounds of stallholders, shoppers, and their trolleys and pets; the kitchens where we combine and craft our delicious creations with music playing, a dash of spice added to dishes and the way we dance and delight when the flavours and sights of our dishes emerge from our hands and minds; also to friends and family who love being part of the guest list and add laughter, love, and togetherness that make so many meals memorable, evocative and meaningful. All the elements of our senses combine to create memorable experiences linking food and a sense of belonging.”

What are the social benefits of food?

When it comes to socialising and uniting people, many scholars have claimed that food plays an important role (e.g., Neely, 2016; Ratcliffe, 2019); while it can bring people together physically, it can also foster a feeling of togetherness and shared collective identity.

As Chetcuti reflects, eating isn't just about consuming food; it can be a way to connect with loved ones, show love and care, or take part in a common experience. She recalls, “Food for me is about family, friends, flavours, creations and selecting fresh produce. The foundations of culture, working together and celebration when making food is everything.”

Chetcuti touches on celebrations, and as a symbol of belonging to a social group, "celebration or a time to recall shared experiences with loved ones." It serves as a bridge between people at various points in their lives.

Food at school

For many children and adolescents, scheduled eating times at school bring routines around social contact. Many students feel a sense of belonging with the peer connections made over lunch box conversations and the interactions forged at break times. In fact, food and school and the connections that Chetcuti touches on have been the driving forces behind The Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation.

Stephanie Alexander AO, one of Australia’s most recognised cooks, food educators, and authors, established the Kitchen Garden Foundation in 2004. She developed the “pleasurable food educationphilosophy and recognised the power and magic of food education to deliver social benefits along with improvements in food literacy and food behaviour.

At Springvale Rise Primary School in Melbourne’s South East, kitchen garden specialist Mary Giannakopoulos has seen firsthand how learning to grow, harvest, prepare and share foods from across cultural traditions has the power to bring everyone together.

She says that children light up when one of their traditional foods is grown in the school gardens, or one of their recipes is prepared in kitchen classes, and how they feel validated when what they do at home is accepted and celebrated at school.

In contrast, she recalled her own childhood, when her Greek food heritage caused some embarrassment because it smelt and looked different from the food of her classmates.

Through the kitchen garden program, students are learning about each other’s cultures through eating each other’s foods, not only accepting but delighting in both their differences and their commonality.

Principal Debbi Cottier adds, “Sharing food is one of the most wondrous ways of connecting. And we’re such a culturally diverse community, we’re treated to some amazing foods along the way.”

At Elizabeth Downs Primary School, children come from approximately 30 different cultural backgrounds. Kitchen specialist Kim Meissner says, “The Kitchen Garden Program provides our newly arrived students, who have often experienced trauma, a sense of familiarity and belonging.”

Food and belonging can be complex

As can be seen in Giannakopoulos’ reflection on her Greek childhood, while using food as an adjunct to building belonging is attractive, the relationship between food and belonging is not always straightforward and easily digestible for all students. For some, food can be a source of anxiety, isolation, and ostracism. For students with additional needs, socio-economic struggles, eating disorders, allergies, or parents with mental illness, food can present as a challenge or obstacle. These examples serve as a stark reminder that what fosters a sense of belonging in some is not necessarily going to foster the same in everyone.

One could therefore ask, is it the food itself that creates belonging, or is it the rituals, routines, traditions, and human interactions that occur around food? This is probably something long understood by those cultural groups where rituals and traditions have great importance. It also might explain why certain groups among ethnic and cultural minorities can demonstrate a strong sense of belonging even during times of transition or relocation. While there is much more to learn about the intersection between culture and belonging, approaches around food rituals and schools should always be inclusive and considerate to the diversity of students they care and cater for.

Betty Chetcuti, used with permission
Thinking about food as a source of belonging needs careful consideration within a lens of inclusion and diversity
Source: Betty Chetcuti, used with permission

Special thanks to the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation and Betty Chetcuti for their assistance. This post is inspired by an unpublished manuscript, Belonging, Identity, Inclusion, and Togetherness: The lesser-known nutritional benefits of food for children and adolescence with co-authors Lefteris Patlamazoglou, Clarie Bristow, Caomhan McGlinchey, Christopher Boyle, and Deana Leahy.

References

Allen, K. A. (2020). The Psychology of belonging. Routledge (Taylor and Francis Group).

Neely, E., Walton, M., & Stephens, C. (2016). Fostering social relationships through food rituals in a New Zealand school. Health Education.

Ratcliffe, E., Baxter, W. L., & Martin, N. (2019). Consumption rituals relating to food and drink: A review and research agenda. Appetite, 134, 86-93.

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