Health promotion in schools should be holistic

Dr Eva Neely – 

We need a more holistic approach to health promotion in schools to empower youth.

I was dissatisfied when reading literature about young people’s nutrition, which was often narrow and negative.

Young people are always put in a bad light, because they do not adhere to the right fruit and vegetable levels, and they are deemed a big risk to our future health. I always felt that it was really undermining, and very narrow, and it did not really take into account the whole picture.

Beyond physical health

Our strong focus on this physical health lifestyle approach really impacts on health holistically. I think a much better focus for looking at health in any population is a more holistic picture, looking at physical, mental and social health and how these aspects affect each other and how we can approach health promotion from more of an empowerment-based approach.

My personal interest in nutrition clashed with existing research, and I wanted to know more about the meaning of food for social health.

It is not up to individuals always to make the right health choices, and not everyone can.

I watched and spoke to teachers and Year 13 students (between 16 and 18 years of age), exploring the students’ everyday food practices including routines, rituals and habits.

Filling knowledge gap

The purpose of my paper was to fill the knowledge gap exploring how food rituals act as vehicles for young people to establish, maintain, and strengthen social relationships.

While fully immersed at school, attending three-to-five days a week, I was able to observe the students’ eating habits and decision-making. They discussed typical things you would think of interest to 16-year-olds, from boys, to things going on at school to other girls and other groups.

Relationships would seem to me to be one of the main things that matter to young people – where they stand, who are their friends – because they seem to be their primary support people during that quite vulnerable period.

Those emerged as key things in their talk. Food emerged in these practices as something quite noticeable sometimes. For example, if people were in a mood or having a fight, they didn’t offer that person food as part of the group when offering food around.

Food rituals

The findings include three food rituals highlighted as significant for young people in managing their social relationships.

Food rituals were used to build, maintain and regulate relationships.

Gifting food was quite a big thing. There were often girls that had made cupcakes to bring and share with others or they made something for someone’s birthday.

These were all really engrained practices linked to their relationships.

The act of going for a walk to get lunch encouraged social interaction and was a means for young people to integrate into a new group, and ritualised food sharing involved negotiating friendship boundaries.

Further research is needed to explore how young people use food rituals in their everyday lives to manage social relationships.

A focus on social relationships in settings such as schools could broaden the scope of nutrition promotion to promote health in physical, mental, and social dimensions, and have wide-reaching implications for school health promotion.

Dr Eva Neely is a Lecturer at the Massey School of Public Health. She spent a year at an urban secondary school for girls, observing and interviewing students and teachers about how they use food in everyday life to understand the social meaning of food amongst young people. She was a guest at a weekly ‘Who Cares? What’s the Point?’ podcast, recently launched by Associate Professor Sarb Johal from Massey University School of Psychology. The series is ‘About the mind for people who think.’

The picture here shows her with her daughter Laurel.

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