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Book ReviewsComptes rendus critiques

Food, Families and Work, Rebecca O’Connell and Julia Brannen, New York, Bloomsbury 2016, 175 pg

  • Pamela Tudge
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Household food consumption is a vital component in understanding our broader food systems and contemporary food cultures. O’Connell and Brannen in Food, Families and Work provide a comprehensive view into this everyday world with their focus on working families in Great Britain. Their research provides a comprehensive investigation into a nation that they report has the highest working hours across Europe coupled with sharply rising child obesity rates. For Canadians, there is an echo here to our own daily realties of eating and the cultural climate of modern life.

A strong component of the book is their description of their research process, which includes an approach to research that adopts multiple methods with their overall research framed around daily food practices. Situating their lens on food practices allows the authors to account for the everyday ‘human action’ of routines, habits and social relations between parents and children (3). In addition, O’Connell and Brannen draw on national surveys that provide quantitative information on the diet of children coupled with women’s employment, family meals and children’s participation in meal preparation. Key to their approach connecting what they describe as macro-level to micro-level perspectives. In each research chapter, they align the survey data with their interviews comprising 47 families from across the country, that differ in socio-economic status and ethnicity. The interviews, take place in two phases with families being interviewed twice within two years. Both children and parents are included in the interviews. Thereby, they expand on the national data to depict a more intricate relationship on what takes place at home, with their key finding that children have far more control over food at home than research has revealed before.

In context, the authors begin with a similar postwar narrative to Canada, where a rapid increase in paid employment for women after 1950 has taken place leading to changes to domestic work. Popular media have linked these changes to poor health among children, however they find little evidence to support this. The equally popular concept that women remain the cooks while maintaining work out of the home however is supported by their own findings as well as other studies. The authors draw on Hochschild’s concept of the “stalled domestic revolution” and discuss in their results that women are still doing most of the planning, cooking and cleaning—only one third of fathers interviewed contributed to foodwork (53). Further, they explore the ways food practices are distributed across members of the household including how parental control impacts children’s eating and the influence of family income on diet. From this they found that parent’s values around food and what they practiced differed. For example, several mothers expressed that including children or husbands in food practices was considered to be more effort and was limited to special events. Further, almost all parents stated that cooking from homemade meals was the best but often did not feel they had the time. An important result was the diversity of ways children were found to control their food which not surprisingly increased with age. More nuanced was the ways foodwork was ‘outsourced’ to others such as pre-cooked meals, fast food stores, daycares or nannies. Extending the daily food regimes to include a large framework of different food providers for children, where food choices were not in the control of parents.

In conclusion, O’Connell and Brannen provide implications for policy makers that reflect their research design and the recognition of the various factors that influence food. A key factor was identifying the degree children have control over their food choices and that how their food preferences change overtime. This research complicates the concept from prior studies that maternal employment effects diets negatively in children. Therefore the conventional focus on food advice to British mothers is misplaced and re-enforces the pressure onto women. The authors imply that by focusing on the mothers, it negates the other family members and supports the cultural bias that limits the mother to foodwork including the thinking, planning and doing parts.

Overall, the authors have presented a very strong contribution to the field of food studies. As a scholarly work, it is suited for academic audiences from undergraduate to advanced students across the social sciences. Similarly it is suited to policy makers that are interested in contemporary issues of feeding families at home. Particularly, this book is useful as a model for research design and for interesting data to include in further research. However, the authors' style is Similarly to a research report making the flow of the book challenging for a broader audience. In addition, the small sample size of 47 families across Great Britain in total with even fewer families participating in their second research phase, limits the relevance their results. Nevertheless, it remains a testament to how researchers can expand past diet to explore why families cook or not, the relationship between values and practices in the home, and the age-old question of why don’t fathers take up the cooking that women have left behind. This book begins to answer some of these questions that are very much relevant to Canadian food cultures.

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