How is food used to foster social relationships at school?

Over a year, Dr Eva Neely watched and spoke to teachers and 16-18 year-old students, exploring the students’ everyday food practices including routines, rituals and habits.

Dr Eva Neely (with her daughter Laurel) graduated
with a PhD from the College of Health in 2016.


A more holistic approach to health promotion in schools could lead to empowered youth according to a study by a Massey University academic.

School of Public Health lecturer Dr Eva Neely 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 better understand the social meaning of food amongst young people.

Dr Neely is the guest for this week’s “Who Cares? What’s the Point?” podcast, recently launched by Associate Professor Sarb Johal from Massey University’s School of Psychology. He describes the series as being “about the mind for people who think”.

Dr Neely says she was dissatisfied when reading literature about young people’s nutrition, which she says was often narrow and negative.

“Young people are always put in a bad light, because they don’t adhere to the right fruit and vegetable levels, and they are deemed a big risk to our future health. I always felt it was really undermining, and very narrow, and it didn’t really take into account the whole picture,” Dr Neely says.

“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.”

Dr Neely says her personal interest in nutrition clashed with existing research, and she wanted to know more about the meaning of food for social health. “It’s not up to individuals always to make the right health choices, and not everyone can.”

Over a year, Dr Neely watched and spoke to teachers and 16-18 year-old students (Year 13), exploring the students’ everyday food practices including routines, rituals and habits. “The purpose of my paper is 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 the school, attending three to five days a week, Dr Neely was able to observe the students’ eating habits and decision-making. They discussed “typical things you would think 16-year-olds are interested in, from boys, to things going on at school to other girls and other groups,” Dr Neely says.

Our relationship with food

“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.”

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.”

Dr Neely says further research exploring how young people use food rituals in their everyday lives to manage social relationships is needed.

“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.”

Fostering social relationships through food rituals in a New Zealand school was co-authored by Dr Eva Neely and Dr Mat Walton from the School of Public Health, and Professor Christine Stephens from the School of Psychology, and can be read here.

You can listen to the “Who Cares” What’s the Point?” podcast series here.

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