Global statistics on obesity and overweight point to the existence of more than a billion people in this situation, making it a serious problem this century. This issue is of particular concern in the group of children, taking epidemic lines: in the EU25, recent estimates indicate that there are 22 million overweight children, of whom 5.1 million are obese. The scanty studies carried out in Portugal show that in the 7-11 age group more than 30% are overweight or obese. This is a result of several factors, including an increasingly unbalanced diet, where fats and sugars predominate. In addition, a substantial part of the child’s life is undeniably spent in school, and his role and, in particular, the meal service in promoting healthier eating habits and lifestyles are crucial.
Given the pertinence of this strongly mediated theme and the lack of sociological studies in this area, both internationally and above all at the national level, this project aims to understand the organization and regulation of school meal systems oriented towards healthy eating, and the food skills of the children. In Portugal, as well as in Europe, school meal service has been heavily criticized for providing nutritionally unbalanced food, where products with high fat, sugar and salt indices exist. Moreover, these products usually originate in intensive agro-alimentary systems, with harmful impacts on the environment, food security and social equity.
There are also concerns about children’s poor knowledge of food and cooking and the child’s increasingly tenuous relationship with healthy lifestyles.
In response to these problems, a gradual reform of the public meal system has been implemented in some European countries. Portugal is no exception and in recent years a number of government recommendations have been issued for schools and catering companies to encourage changes in school menus and buffets. In parallel, the European Union has recently funded an initiative – School Fruit Scheme – which aims to contribute to the promotion of healthier eating habits among young people.
Portugal adhered to this initiative that is being implemented in the 2009/2010 school year. In some countries, strategies for health promotion, food security and sustainability have gone through initiatives to relocate public food purchases, encouraging the use of local products or organic farming. In Portugal, recent studies have concluded that there is a growing interest in the production and consumption of national and organic products, and that health concerns are central to ‘bio’ consumption. Thus, a number of issues raise our interest in better exploring the links between school meal service, the eating habits of children and their families.
How do Portuguese schools have operationalized these government recommendations and initiatives? How do children have appropriate school feeding where schools are often surrounded by an obesogenic environment? Are children exposed to consistent information about healthy eating at school and at home? Or are they the messages and knowledge that get contradictory? These are our starting points, inspired by the findings of a British study comparing school feeding service in the UK and Italy. This study was attended by the coordinator of this proposal, where an investigation of the dietary practices of children (and their families) as well as their dietary knowledge was conducted.
The scarce sociological research on this theme, at the international and national levels, is the main reason to adapt that study to our context, adjusting the methodologies already designed and tested by Mara Miele (consultant of this project). The methods combine children’s diaries; discussion groups with children and parents; and semi-directive interviews with the main actors of the public meal system. In addition to the innovative methodological component, the study covers a little analyzed theme in the sociology of consumption, food and childhood – the acquisition of children’s food knowledge – informed by theories of practice.