Skip to navigation – Site map

Examining Children’s Food Heritage in Spanish schools: A Process of Learning to Become “Eaters-in-Context”?

Le patrimoine alimentaire enfantin dans les écoles espagnoles. Un processus d’apprentissage pour devenir « mangeurs-en-contexte » ?
José A. Torralba and Barbara Atie Guidalli


In this paper, we argue for the use of the word ‘heritage’ when referring to children’s construction and transmission of their identity in relation to food (Hubert, 1994). We show that children’s construction of a food heritage is quite different from that of the adult world in terms of the relationships and practices they develop with peers in different contexts concerning food. We offer the concept of “eater-in-context” as a mechanism for examining how such process takes place. To do that, we unpack three dimensions of ‘food heritage’, namely place, agents, and time involved. We propose to view those dimensions within school foodscapes (Mikkelsen, 2011; Johansson et al., 2009) to relate the material and immaterial aspects of children’s food heritage. We use two exampleto discuss the theoretical and practical issues emerging out of such a conceptual proposal. We close by discussing the relevance of this conceptualization to the increasing concern with children’s eating practices in and out of schools.

Top of page

Full text

Introduction. Exploring the dynamics of children’s food heritage

1Asking whether the word ‘heritage’ in children’s food heritage adequately represents the construction and transmission of children’s identity in relation to food, as expressed in the introduction to this volume, brings out important questions that could impact the study of food heritage in general and children’s food heritage in particular. In this paper, we respond to some of those questions by elaborating questions of our own and offering an analysis of children’s eating practices that illustrate the relationship between children’s food heritage and food heritage as traditionally understood. We center on the dynamics of food heritage, exploring how such process may position us theoretically and methodologically within a larger effort to understand processes of learning and belonging to a community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991) among children in relation to school food practices (Torralba & Guidalli, 2014).

2Our questions are situated within the same tensions highlighted in the introduction to this volume, namely What are the differences between adult and children’s food heritages?” and “To what extent may the former shape the latter?” We think these questions attempt to explore the limitations of current theorizing on food heritage, and seek to broaden current models underlying its dynamics. Instead of focusing on the differences between adult and children’s food heritage, we ask, how do adults and children mutually participate in the dynamic aspects of a food heritage? And, to what extend does the latter impact the former? If the word ‘heritage’ as traditionally understood indicates, among other things, an intergenerational transmission or socialization process, we think it is productive to revisit that assumption while seeking to understand a “horizontal” (or child-to-child) transmission.

3The dynamics of transmission involved in food heritage are often conceptualized as taking place early on developmentally and, for the most part, are passive in terms of the recipient. As Fischler (1995: 35) have suggested, the norms that govern the consumption and behavior of eaters in particular cultures are internalized by individuals in good part through unconscious means. At the same time, the notion of children’s food heritage seems to allude to processes that are quite conscious, and position them as active agents (Suremain, 2010). We think it may be productive to center first on the interactions among children, and only then speculate as to how those interactions may impact the broader process of food heritage (the “vertical” transmission). In short, we think that understanding children’s food heritage may involve a developmental component at the children’s level (horizontal) and that these two processes (adult and children food heritage) could be conceived as mutually constitutive. Thus, we propose that “heritage” in children’s food heritage be viewed and studied as the result of a series of interactions among children within the larger context of a cultural (adult-children) food heritage.

4In this paper we center on examining those interactions among children within the context of institutionally organized school eating practices. This may reveal how children’s food heritage develops within a context where food and eating practices are highly structured and geared toward socializing children into a particular way of eating (Karrebæk, 2012). Schools have been conceptualized as ‘captive’ food environments (Mikkelsen, 2011), signaling the large amounts of daily time children remain in them, and their lack of agency in deciding what foods are prepared and offered to them there. We can also think of this captivity in school food as a cultural context in which a particular food heritage is transmitted to children. In any case, such views of a food environment aligns well with the conception of passive recipients as alluded to above. However, when we observe children eating and talking about the actual eating practices inside the school lunchroom (as we will show in this paper), we see they have their own interpretations of what it means to eat there. Those interpretations lead to actions suggesting they are actively reacting to a captive food environment and constructing collective ways of eating collectively inside schools. We try to capture some of those interpretations and actions to exemplify the relationship between the horizontal and vertical processes discussed above.

Theoretical orientations

5In this essay, we assume food heritage is a social construction (Bessière, 1998; Baeta Neves Flores, 1995) and children are central agents in this process. From a developmental and social construction perspective, notions of food heritage within a particular group or community involve a transmission process from adults to their children. This has been viewed as a vertical mode of enculturation or socialization. At the same time, transmission processes among children has shown to be productive for examining identity construction around food and eating (Suremain, 2006; 2010). We propose that a horizontal mode of transmission among children be viewed as forming part of food heritage, and that both movements may take place simultaneously and affect each other. To propose such conceptualization, we disrupt the implicitly understood unidirectional developmental relation between adults and children at several levels (i.e., Adult(s) towards Children) in the transmission of a food heritage (Hervieu-Léger, 1996; Nora, 1993), and suggest that a bidirectional approach (i.e., Adult(s)<--->Children) could better describe the co-existence of roles adults and children play in the construction and transmission of a food heritage.

6Beyond this disruption at the agent level, we modify the temporal axis of such transmission, because a horizontal focus is not generational but interactional. Conceptually, a temporal shift implies a momentary departure from notions of ‘legacy’ as passed on across generational lines traditionally associated with notions of heritage (Bessière, 1998: 26). That, in turn, signals a lesser focus on the link between past and present pointing more to the present and how a present inhabited by children’s interactions can serve for future developments of identity and children’s food heritage. At the same time, by looking at interactions among children within schools, we generalize the notion of place in food heritage (Bérard & Marchenay, 2007). The notion of a place in studies of food heritage refers to a particular region, local or community. As such, it becomes an identity marker for a people of a region. In our discussion that sense of place is represented by the school not as a site in a region, but rather, as a place associated with particular ways of eating. These shifts in agents, time and place constitute analytical resources for examining the horizontal dimension of a food heritage, which in this case center on children eating practices inside schools.

7We borrow the concept of foodscapes to capture the complexity of school food and eating, namely, the inter-relations between the different agents and factors associated with eating in schools. Mikkelsen defines foodscapes as “The physical, organizational, and socio-cultural space in which clients/guests encounter meals, food, and food-related issues, including health-related messages (Mikkelsen, 2011: 215). Johansson provides a similar definition but with other nuances: The places and contexts where children eat and come into contact with food, and the meanings and associations connected to them (Johansson et al. 2009: 30).These two notions reveal the complexity of eating at school in a context (not just a ‘place’) composed of interactions, meanings, associations, organization, physicality and messages. We believe this concept offers a theoretical and methodological approach to consider factors related to the act of eating that go beyond food and eating. However, the notion applied to the study of school food is relatively new and has little theoretical and methodological precedent. Our proposal is that for “foodscape” to be analytically (and not just descriptively) useful, it should capture the permeable nature of settings where people eat, meaning that such settings allow key operating factors and agents to enter and leave. And because of such permeability, they should also be viewed as dynamic units that can undergo organizational, structural and social changes through time (Torralba & Guidalli, 2014). Our initial analysis uses this version of foodscapes (its permeable character) to understand how children compare foods, servings and eating practices across different foodscapes. Once analytically inside a foodscape, we center on students’ feeding practices using socio-cultural theories of learning to conceptualize change (its dynamic character) in individuals and feeding practices using the notion of Legitimate Peripheral Participation (LPP- Lave & Wenger, 1991), by which we try to understand identity construction and transmission as progressive movements of individuals towards becoming part of a social group guided by personal goals and the collective norms. This concept, used by Lave and Wenger to describe learning, allows us to examine the individual (in relation to a group) whose function is to learn to eat in school and be part of that group. In trying to understand children’s food heritage and identity construction through legitimate peripheral participation (LPP) we propose the notion of eater-in-context.

8We think of an eater-in-context as an individual seeking to become part of a particular foodscape and employing, through repeated interactions with others, the material and immaterial resources available in that particular foodscape. Many of those resources are unique to that foodscape (for instance, the way people organize themselves to eat in a school, the norms that guide such eating, the way food is served, etc.).The emerging learning is therefore context-bound or situated in the practice as it develops on site. But some resources are not unique to it, they exist across other foodscapes, and individuals make use of them to gain initial entry into different or new foodscapes (for example, children have knowledge of eating utensils and how to use them, even if they are employed differently across different foodscapes; or, in another example, they have a sense of the order in which dishes are meant to be eaten, namely a first course or starter, second course or main dish, and dessert although such order may be respected more or less according to the context).

9To an important degree, the norms, expectations and organizational structures of the school lunchroom form part of an adult food heritage. For instance, in Spain this connection is reflected in the type of food served, the order in which food is served, and the cultural norms of eating. These factors of the school lunchroom form part of the adult food heritage that children face and navigate on a daily basis at schools. From the perspective of the children, eating under these constraints represents an affiliation to that food heritage, but not a complete or passive acceptance of that heritage. Children accept and reject some foods and norms, and even negotiate with adults and others what is expected of them and what they seek for themselves inside the school lunchroom (Bruselius-Jensen, 2014). These child-initiated processes are what we view as the horizontal dimension of a food heritage. They are seldom independent of the adult food heritage and in fact emerge and develop within it.

10The notion of LPP thus allows us to understand and describe the organization of interactions that take place in the school lunchroom or canteen between students and adults and among students in terms both of what is expected institutionally of students and what students expect of the school lunchroom. That means understanding how students become or are incorporated into a way of eating in the school context. We offer the concept of Eater-in-Context to signal such construction and transmission of children’s identity. Through participation in school eating practices, and conversations with adult supervisors, students are socialized in relation to sanctioned foods, ways of eating, social order, and identity aspects of food (Karrebæk, 2012: 5). Yet, part of the formation of a children’s food heritage in schools involves resisting, contesting, and adapting those socialization efforts to form their own identities as school eaters. We focus on how children in the school foodscape employ language and other resources to construct meaning and forge a collective identity as school eaters.

Methodological orientations

  • 1 Usually, meal services offered by schools in Spain are operated by a catering company (which provid (...)

11To ground our analysis of children’s food heritage in schools, we offer two examples. Our data emerge from a larger corpus collected by both authors across schools in different parts of Spain1. Data used in the first example (see section 4.1) come from informal interviews and conversations with students and parents at a public elementary school in Madrid, Spain, collected by Torralba during weekly observations in the lunchroom of that school. Those records were collected during the 2012-13 academic year. Conversations were transcribed in a relatively minimal conversation analytic standard (Karrebaek, 2013). Data used in the second example (see section 4.2) come from extensive observations, informal conversations and focus group interviews with elementary and secondary students conducted by Guidalli in elementary and secondary schools across the Catalan region of Spain, as part of a project that examines students’ eating practices in school lunchrooms (ODELA, 2010-12).

12Through both examples we focus on students and adults perceptions of food, behavior, and other social aspects of eating in and out of school. Those perceptions are articulated in statements made by children and adults in relation to food, dishes, eating at school, participating in a group, etc. In example 1 we take on the issue of how the resources of a school lunchroom are utilized by one student to become part of a group. The geography of the school lunchroom is central to this process. This example seeks to illustrate the horizontal dimension of a food heritage. In example 2 we examine statements produced by students from different school levels (elementary and secondary) to hypothesize how those statements reflect a process of becoming a school eater and to show the mutual constitutive nature of children and adults’ food heritages.


The horizontal dimension of a food heritage: using the school lunchroom to become a member of a group

13In this example we examine one student’s attempts of becoming part of a group as centrally related to identity building, attempts which are marked by strategic and active use of the material and immaterial resources of a school lunchroom. We view those actions as the mechanism by which the horizontal developmental process or dynamics of food heritage takes place inside a school lunchroom, and we employ the concept of ‘eater-in-context’ to capture such development.

14The student, Iñigo, was an eight year-old Spanish boy who during the 2012-2013 academic year attended second grade in a public school in Madrid. Because he was classified as academically advanced for his grade level, both the school and his parents decided to accelerate his progress through a progressive transition into the third grade level. Throughout 2012-13, he periodically attended third grade in different subjects that matched his second grade schedule. Thus, Iñigo was socializing with two different groups during that year. The expectation was that during the next academic year (2013-2014) Iñigo would become a full member of the 4th grade. According to his mother, Blanca, the child “felt much more comfortable in third than in second grade, he was more in line with 3th grade peers (…) When he would attend the third grade classroom, it was like the joy of the day for him”. During December 2012, Iñigo suggested to his mother that since he was almost a third grader, why couldn’t he join the third grade table at the school lunchroom?

15It’s worth noting that in this school, classrooms and lunchroom are both organized by grade level. In other words, the lunchroom geography reflects that of the academic room or classroom. We believe such geography was a key material resource to Iñigo for ‘becoming’ part of the 3th grade table (see Diagram 1 below).

Iñigo’s school lunchroom

Iñigo’s school lunchroom

The arrow shows Iñigo movement from the 1rst and 2nd grade table to the 3th grade table.

16Blanca explained that neither she nor the school had thought of the lunchroom as a place to help Iñigo’s transition, and mentioned that, “at those daily 45 minutes students spend together there could be a time for integration”. After discussing Iñigo’s proposal with the school principal, Iñigo was moved to the third grade table in the lunchroom. Blanca thought such change of tables was what made Iñigo really feel part of the new group. Before that switch, Iñigo “was like a satellite, he came and went, one day for two hours… another day for one hour, yet other days he wouldn’t even go to the third grade class. But, the lunchroom gave him a daily routine, a consistent daily time he was with the third graders; he ate with his fellow third graders”.

  • 2 The broken phone game refers to whispering to the person next to you a word and following this patt (...)

17For Blanca, the fact that Iñigo got to eat with the third graders was a different step towards the integration process of his son, “one that was not focused on academics, but instead on his emotional adjustment”. At the same time, Iñigo spoke to us about the sense of group in the lunchroom. He did that in reference to the type of “transgressions” taking place at the tables. According to him, children always tried to keep talking or playing without the supervisors realizing it to prevent scolding. At the third grade table they played the "broken telephone" game2, although there was a rule in the lunchroom allowing students to speak only if they were eating their food and doing so in a low voice. Another “transgression” consisted in throwing undesired food under the table. He explained that there were “many times” that supervisors were not aware of this throwing of food, but that the “three or four times” that they did realize what was going on, since none of the students confessed doing it, supervisors punished the entire table by keeping students from playing out in the playground (lunchroom supervisors also supervise play after the meal time). Iñigo told us: “Only once, and after an hour of being punished, a girl confessed, and then the supervisors allowed the entire group to go on with playing activities of the recess time”.

How does the concept of “eater-in-context” help us understand Iñigo’s development?

18The evidence suggests Iñigo was actively trying to become a 3th grader and used the lunchroom to achieve that aim. If his moving to third grade was fundamentally part of arrangements, reorganizations and changes at the curricular level, eating with third graders functioned as a further step in that process carried out by him with the support of the school. Iñigo used the geography of the school lunchroom to formalize his sense of belonging to the third grade level. In this sense, the school lunchroom was perceived by Iñigo as an institutionalized setting to affirm and strengthen his efforts to join a new group. That is, in order to affirm and strengthen his identity as third grader. He was learning to become a third grader, and that took place academically in the classroom and socially in the lunchroom.

19We may ask what social and/or material conditions Iñigo saw and used as resources to accomplish his movement towards becoming a third grader? Certainly interactions mediated by language played a role. The character of the interactions between lunchroom supervisors and students as a collective was very present throughout his statements. Every time Iñigo talked to us about his experiences in the lunchroom, he referred to the third or second graders as a collective he sought to associate with (the 3d grade table) or disassociate from (the 2nd grade table). Becoming a third grader at that table meant learning to play particular games during meal time without getting caught; learning to be punished as part of a collective; and recognizing that all these activities were part of one group and not of others. We argue that these subtle movements are central to moving towards a center of identity constituted by the notion of being a third grade eater and a third grade student. The notion of legitimate peripheral participation (LPP) developed by Lave & Wenger (1991) seems relevant here to describe such development. As that theoretical construct implies, Iñigo was an apprentice at becoming a third grader, and he was actively utilizing the material and immaterial resources of that context for the purpose of moving towards the center of activity, a center populated by ways of acting as a third grader in and out of the lunch room.

How do place, time, and agents play a role in the horizontal dimension of a food heritage in this example?

20As noted in the introduction, our efforts to conceptualize the dynamic aspects of “heritage” involve disrupting some of its central elements such as place, time and agents. Below we look at those dimensions in relation to the interactions between Iñigo and the collective we describe above.

21i. Place. In schools like this one, children’s sitting assignments were made at the beginning of the year according to grade level. Thus the lunchroom becomes a single public space where all grades are present at one time and are visible to everyone, although grades occupy different tables. Once this material resource was in place, children like Iñigo recognized it and employed it for developing affiliation and alliances with those sitting around them. That work was greatly facilitated by the interplay of the material and immaterial resources available at the grade level table (i.e., talk, eating practices, norms, tools, and play, etc.). The sense of place traditionally associated with the word heritage is somehow transformed in this foodscape into a generic one, a generalized place, that of the school lunchroom. We can then associate children’s food heritage with school rather than with a school. Thus, the school lunchroom becomes a generic site [as home or restaurants] for developing collective ways of eating. In this sense, ‘place’ is not associated with a particular locale or region marking cultural distinctiveness as is the case in traditional views of food heritage, but rather as an everyday site with unique eating practices that foster cultural affiliations among children and promotes alignments with the food heritage outside of it.

22ii. Agents. The traditional vertical and unidirectional relationship (adult---->child) of food heritage is disrupted or altered here in important ways. The [adult] lunchroom supervisor-student relationship is one of adults mostly supervising the consumption of the food and enforcing adherence to expected behavior. Against that background, children develop collective ways of eating that at times align with how they are expected to eat and at other times do not. Eating becomes a highly social and collective practice uniting students into a group (a grade level in this school) and differentiating them from other groups and from adults. However, at the horizontal level the central agents of a food heritage become the peers. Iñigo had to negotiate his admission to the third grade table. This was done partly by participating in the collective ways of eating, playing and talking at the third grade table. The broken telephone game was just one of those ways of becoming a third grade eater. We suspect language-in-interaction plays a central role on this type of peer-to-peer or horizontal development as others have shown (Karrebæk, 2012). Literature on children’s food consumption emphasizes the influence of peers in their eating practices (Stewart et al. 2006; Ross 1995; Roos 2002; Lundvigsen & Scott 2009). In fact, it appears that the most important factor in the change and socialization of children’s food tastes is the influence of their own peers (Fischler, 1995: 100). Observations of Spanish lunchrooms show that students eating at the same table ate similar foods and consumed similar portions. This highlights that the social exchange around a table, and between tables, has a direct impact on the actual consumption by the students. (Observatorio de la Alimentación, 2004).

23iii. Temporality. Because we are talking about interactions that take place among peers at a table during an academic school year (or part of it), we are referring to a time that may span only a few months. But we suspect the moment-by-moment interactions among peers at the tables are what support the construction of identity. At the same time, those seconds or minutes of interactions are part of a daily routine that may structure and mediate the type of peer culture from where to develop the skills to become member of a group. According to Corsaro & Eder (1990: 197), peer culture “is a stable set of activities or routines, artifacts, values, and concerns that children produce and share in interaction with peers”. In other words, within the daily routine of eating at the school lunchroom, students may be crafting their peer culture, a culture of school eaters, and we suspect that those interactions at the table are the epicenter of that process.

The vertical dimension of a food heritage: Envisioning a school eater

  • 3 The original Spanish responses are shown below:

24In this example we use statements collected from school children to characterize the conceptual landscape of children in regard to food and other aspects of eating, and to examine how they use such knowledge to create comparison between their own [envisioned] development as eaters and that of a larger food heritage represented by the school institution. We are interested in how these statements reflect developmental stages in becoming a school eater, and how part of that development may include a comparative framework employed by students in assessing school food and thus position themselves as a type of school eaters3.

(1) “The school salad is not a salad, it is lettuce! My mother puts onions, carrots, olives, cheese, apples, pears, everything!” (4th grade female)

(2) “Vegetables in school are better than those at my home because they are juicer” (2nd grade female)

(3) “In school, there are more children than at home… to talk with. This is something good” (1st grade female)

(4) “My mother has never made me eat lettuce, so don’t make me” (7th grade male talking to the lunchroom supervisor)

(5) “And they make “paella” in a big pot, covered with a top, but that’s not a real “paella”. We want it like in a restaurant! They don’t even add seafood, only peas and a little meat… it’s not a “paella.” (5th grade male)

(6) “One day…what was for lunch… there was a pretty good lunch… but I was still hungry after finishing it. You know? It was just like in those fancy restaurants where they put a little portion on your plate… it was just like that. They put a little bit on my plate and they didn’t allow me to have a second serving” (6th grade female).

What type(s) of eater-in-context do these statements reflect?

25In our view, these statements and their underlying assumptions show us how students perceive and use the material and immaterial resources (food, preparations, norms, etc.) of different foodscapes (home, restaurants, etc.) to evaluate food, meals and their eating experiences in the school. Those evaluations are grounded in a comparative model that reveals central elements of being or becoming a school eater. Most if not all of these statements reflect expectations of students about the food, the meals, and their eating experiences at school. Those expectations are often expressed within a comparative framework of different foodscapes as just mentioned. For instance, it is common for students to draw comparisons between “school food’ and “home food”. Students expect “school food to adapt” to previously internalized models or conceptions of food from home (or other foodscapes as our data suggest). These expectations imply they perceive school food as ‘different’ from that of other foodscapes. Food may be the same, but the difference is in how, where, when, who, why and what it is made for (Observatorio de la Alimentación, 2004).

26Moreover, students identify analog elements of different foodscapes (for instance, a salad) to support their assessments of school food. Sometimes they are able to attach particular agents (e.g., people) to those elements, and sometimes those agents remain generic (e.g., a restaurant, a school). In either case, their expectations reveal the type of food they envision as school eaters. Statements (1), (2) and (5) illustrate this phenomenon. In statements (1), a child identifies a particular agent, her mother, involved in the preparation of a salad and evaluates the appropriateness of the school salad in relation to the preparation of that dish at home. For this child, the school salad is just lettuce (“it is lettuce”), while the one prepared by her mother has “everything”. In a similar vein, statement (5) also identifies an agent responsible for preparing a dish (a paella) across two foodscapes (school and a restaurant). Here the agent remain generic – a restaurant and the school. This student complains about the paella served at school because of the way it is prepared (“in a big pot, covered with a top”), and the narrow range of ingredients (“They don’t even add seafood, just peas and only a little meat”). He identified a restaurant as the maker of “real” paella. Both students are expressing expectations of dishes to be more complete, more complex. At best, these misalignments will produce complaints from these or other students. At worst, they may result in additional leftovers. We do not know the answer, but we certainly want to be attentive.

27Not all school food fails to meet students’ expectations in terms of quality. Through statements (2) a child identifies the characteristics of a school dish as more desirable than those from home. Again, the agent remains generic (home, school), the analog is a vegetable dish, and what makes one better than the other, in the eyes of this student, is something closely related to the preparation and/or service of the dish, and her preference, of course. This child uses agents to characterize school food in terms of appearance and takes a position on what she prefers (school has juicier vegetables). Our observations reveal that the organoleptic characteristics of food (texture, color, smell, etc.) significantly influence the food choices of students. Other research has identified food presentation as one of the most important aspects among adolescents’ concerns when making food choices (Neumark-Sztainer et al., 2005: 931).

28Students also compare foodscapes to produce expectations of their eating experiences and thus evaluate the type of school eaters they imagine themselves to be. Statements (3), (4), and (6) address this development. In statement (4), a student compares elements (food and adult) of different foodscapes to question the authority of adult supervisors and consequently to ask for additional autonomy as part of his eating experiences at school. Facing pressure from the lunchroom supervisor to eat all the lettuce on the plate, this student justifies his refusal to eat the lettuce by stressing that his mother does not force him to eat lettuce. Thus, he links the school and home foodscapes to position himself as an eater of certain foods and thereafter develop some eating behavior around it. In statement (6), we see again a student using a comparative framework (fancy restaurants and school) to express how she would like to eat in school in terms of quantities and in terms of being able to make decision about repeating a desirable item. She compares the small portions of food served in school with that of a “fancy restaurant” which, in her view, is associated with good quality of food, smaller portions and therefore insufficient quantity, and of course the inability to repeat servings. These eating experiences are related to the food itself, to be sure. But, in our view, they are also closely related to how these students envision themselves as school eaters as wanting to decide on quantities (too much or too little), and on items to be consumed (lettuce).

29Sometimes, children perceive the school lunchroom as providing desirable elements that cannot be found at home. For instance, in statement (3), a child assesses positively the school lunchroom as having more children “to talk with” than at home. Research has shown that a meal is more than its contents and includes social sharing dimensions (Morrison, 1996: 660). Sharing food is held to signify ‘togetherness’, an equivalence among a group that defines and reaffirms insiders as socially similar (Mennell et al., 1992: 115). During fieldwork in school cafeterias in Marseille and Strasbourg, France, Guétat & Lioré (2009: 61) observed that the positive views about the school meal among 11-12 year-old students were not attributed to the quality of the food but to the social aspect of sharing a meal with their friends. For them, lunchtime was associated with sociability and more relaxed, even “bad” table manners (playing with the food, eating the courses out of order, etc.). Social ties are woven through food (Poulain, 2002: 177). Thus, sharing certain habits or food preferences creates a sense of identity and community (Contreras and Gracia, 2005: 89). It is quite possible that statement (3) reflects some type of development because this is a first grade student who is at the very beginning of his trajectory as a school eater.

How do place, time, and agents play a role in the horizontal and vertical dimension of a food heritage in this example?

30i. Place. We think that part of constructing and transmitting an identity as a school eater may include employing other ‘places’ to assess the school foodscape. Here we are referring to the comparative model we present in the previous section. We suspect the comparative framework we present in that section is part of a developmental trajectory of becoming a school eater that entails assessing the elements of the school foodscape in relation to other foodscapes. In short, the notion of place in children school food heritage may be a relational concept. Those other foodscapes constitute the larger food heritage which children are seeking, negotiating, and sometimes resisting. Thus, we can interpret those comparative activities as representing the relation that exists between the horizontal and the vertical dimensions of a food heritage. Children are deeply aware of the food heritage they have developed in (the vertical dimension) as represented by home, restaurants and other places. The organization of school food and eating represents aspects of that heritage.

  • 4 Look, they have the table set nicely, with plates…they eat something different… We want a table li (...)

31ii. Agents. If children see themselves as different from adults in relation to food and eating, as some research suggests (James, 1989; Roos, 2002; Ludvigsen & Scott, 2009), in the school lunchroom they may be constructing their own collective identity as school eaters but nevertheless remain deeply embedded within an adult heritage as represented by the school menu and the lunchroom behavioral norms. This may imply that such efforts take place through horizontal and vertical processes simultaneously. Both movements disrupt tradition transmission patterns of food heritage. First, they do so in the sense that we see predominantly a child-to-child transmission. Second, they add a child-adult dimension transforming the traditional adult-child transmission model into a bidirectional relationship as we proposed earlier. In the school lunchroom, those relationships are represented by co-existing tensions between what children are constructing for themselves in terms of identity as school eaters and what the institution offers in terms of the food heritage it wants to impart. How those tensions are resolved, if they are, is something to be examined further. What we have observed is that children are not always necessarily distancing themselves from adults. We have statements where students explicitly state their desire to be treated as adults in relation to the type of utensils, the quantity and quality of the food served to them4. Instead, we think they use aspects of the adult food heritage selectively to craft their own identity. For instance, as the statements offered above suggest, agents can be persons like mothers who prepare food in ideals ways, or more generic agents such as restaurants that produce small portions of fancy food, or “true paellas”. All these agents seem to be employed by children not so much in opposition but rather to forge their identity as school eaters. To be sure, the relationship with other children at the lunch table plays an important role in crafting an identity as school eater among children. For instance, as described in Example 1, students’ repeated usage of “we” to speak of a collective indicates the importance of children transmitting an identity different from that of others. We think most of that identity is crafted in daily interactions at the table.

32iii. Time. We think the six statements above suggest that becoming a school eater may involve different temporalities. For instance, children’s use of resources from other foodscapes to evaluate the school food and their own eating practices in it may involve experiences in those other foodscapes accumulated over extended periods of time. Those experiences are probably gathered through actual repeated engagement in those foodscapes or by other means (media imagery, etc.), and the children begin to form food and eating perceptions and preferences. Another type of temporality might involve the frequency and duration of interactions between children and adults across the horizontal and vertical dimension of a food heritage. How often and for how long do children interact with an adult food heritage outside school? And how do those interactions impact such heritage? Some of the statements we offer suggest children may go back home and affect the way some food is prepared and offered to them (2), or the way they prefer to eat at home with others (3).

33The literature on school food ‘problems’ is filled with issues of time; not enough time to eat, too much time waiting in lines, not enough time for the entire lunch period, etc. (Poppendieck, 2010: 148). We think children are quite aware of time during the lunch period, and we suspect they make use of it to manage the things they see as important to do during lunchtime. Becoming or learning to be a school-eater may mean learning to eat and socialize within rigid time schedules (more so than at home, or in restaurants, etc.). Thus, the amount of time delegated for a meal is an important structuring element concerning the consumption of food at school. One of the most striking consequences of this resource is that children may become selective about what they take from the food offered because of time restriction, and often their selection is not well aligned with the nutritional expectation of the institution (Glantz et al., 1994; Poppendieck, 2010: 150). Thus becoming a school eater, within a limited lunch period of time, may mean eating your sweets first and then if there is time, move on to the ‘healthy’ food on your plate (Kumari, 2005). We do not have a good understanding of how children use time to structure their eating during lunch, but we think viewing it as a resource, one that sets the temporal limits on the eating experiences of children, can be productive for understanding how they actively construct an identity as school eaters.

Closing remarks. Becoming a school eater

34We advocate the use of the term “heritage” in “children’s food heritage” because we feel the term is relevant in showing a horizontal developmental process of food identity at the child’s level. Our analyses have shown that examining the eating practices of children in schools, from a child-centered perspective, is a productive exercise in at least identifying the key elements of such processes (children’s comparative framework and collective sense of eating, etc.). In our view, questioning some of the fundamental assumptions of food heritage (e.g., place, agents, and time) has forced us to look inside the school lunchroom with particular attention to how children interpret and use the material and immaterial resources of that and other foodscapes. Despite current conceptualizations of the school lunchroom as a captive environment, we feel our conception of foodscape (i.e., its permeability and dynamism) has allowed us to conceive this place as an open system where factors and agents from outside have an impact on its functioning and where shifts of one element or agent impact others. Much of our attention has been on how children are active players in those processes. In other words, children are not necessarily passive recipients of knowledge, skills, and norms, but instead, they become individually and collectively vested in crafting their eating experiences at the school foodscape.

35We followed Iñigo’s experiences to gain a sense of how an individual sought to become part of a group using the resources of the school lunchroom, and we traced the meaning of statements produced by school children of different ages and schools to speculate as to the type of identity formation and transmission we see as a collective, as children school food heritage. Moreover, the notions of LPP served us to understand and describe the process children undergo to become a school eater (or eaters-in-context across other foodscapes). Understanding how individuals become part of a group using notions such as LPP means that aspects on the context are not just important, they are constitutive. In closing, we could view children’s food heritage in schools as an example of becoming a school eater. That process may entail a) appropriating ways of eating that are deeply context-bound and thus unique to the school foodscape; b) comparing elements of different foodscapes to articulate an image of one’s eating experiences inside the school foodscape (sometimes in the form of criticism); and c) developing a personal notion of eating as a collective social activity.

Top of page


BAETA NEVES FLORES L.F. 1995 « Mémoires migrantes. Migration et idéologie de la mémoire sociale », Ethnologie Française 25(1) : 43-49.

BÉRARD L. & MARCHENAY P. 2007 « Localized products in France : definition, protection and value-adding », Anthropology of food [] (consulted on 27 October 2013).

BESSIÈRE J. 1998. « Local development and heritage : Traditional food and cuisine as a tourist attractions in rural areas », Sociologia Ruralis 38(1) : 21-34.

BRUSELIUS-JENSEN M. 2014. « The ambiguous process of pupils participation in developing school meals », Paper presented at the « Food, Children and Youth : What’s Eating ? », Conference, Lisbon, February 21-22, 2014.

CONTRERAS J. & GRACIA M. 2005. Alimentación y Cultura. Perspectivas antropológicas. Barcelona : Ariel.

CORSARO W.A. & EDER D. 1990. « Children’s Peer Cultures », Annual Review of Sociology 16(1) : 197-220.

FISCHLER C. 1995. El (h)omnívoro. El gusto, la cocina y el cuerpo. Barcelona : Anagrama.

GUETAT M. & LIORÉ J. 2009. « Les ados et la cantine ou comment ménager la chèvre et le chou », in M. Guetat & J. Lioré (ed.) Alimentations adolescents en France : principaux résultats d’AlimAdos, un programe de recherche de l’Ocha, Les Cahiers de l’Ocha 14 : 57-66.

GLANTZ F.B., BERG R., POLCARI D., SACKOFF E. & PAZER A.S. 1994. School Lunch Eligible Non-Participants : Final report. Submitted to U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Consumer Services, Office of Analysis and Evaluation.

GUIDALLI B.A. 2012. « Variables Affecting Children’s Experience of Eating at School », Menu. Journal of Food and Hospitality Research 1(1) : 7-17.

HERVIEU-LEGER, D. 1996. « Tourisme, tradition et ethnologie », Source 27(1) : 55-86.

HUBERT A. 1994. « Les dînettes d’enfants Yao de Thaïlande », in J. Koubi & J. Massard-Vincent (ed.) Enfants et sociétés d'Asie du Sud-Est : 119-129. Paris : L’Harmattan.

JAMES A. 1989. « Confections, Concoctions and Conceptions », in B. Waites, T. Bennett & G. Martin (ed.) Popular Culture. Past and Present : 294-307. London : Routledge.

JOHANSSON B., ROOS G., HANSEN G.L., MÄKELÄ J., HILLÉN S., JENSEN T.M. & HUOTILAINEN A. 2009. « Nordic Children’s Foodscapes : Images and Reflections, Food, Culture and Society 12(1) : 26-51.

KARREBÆK M.S. 2012. « ‘What’s in Your Lunch Box Today ?’ : Health, Respectability, and Ethnicity in the Primary Classroom », Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 22(1) : 1-22.

KUMARI C. 2005. School lunch could put students’ health at risk, [], Consulted on 27 October 2013.

LAVE J. & WENGER E. 1991. Situated learning : Legitimate peripheral participation. New York : Cambridge University Press.

LUNDVIGSEN A. & SCOTT S. 2009. « Real Kids Don’t Eat Quiche: What Food Means to Children », Food, Culture and Society : An International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research 12(4) : 417-436.

MENNELL S., MURCOTT A. & VAN OTTERLOO A. 1992. The Sociology of Food. Eating, Diet and Culture. London : Sage Publications.

MIKKELSEN B.E. 2011. « Images of foodscapes. Introduction to foodscape studies and their application in the study of healthy eating out-of-home environments », Perspectives in Public Health 131(5) : 209-216.

MORRISON M. 1996. « Sharing Food at Home and School : Perspectives on Commensality », The Sociological Review 44(4) : 648-674.

NEUMARK D., FRENCH S., STORY H.P. & FULKERSON J. 2005. « School Lunch and Snacking Patterns among High School Students. Associations with School Food Environment and Policies », International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity [hppt://], consulted on 27 October 2013.

NORA P. 1993. Les lieux de mémoire. Paris : Gallimard.

Observatorio de la Alimentación 2004. La alimentación y sus circunstancias : placer, conveniencia y salud. IV Foro Internacional de la Alimentación, Barcelona.

Observatorio de la Alimentación 2010-2012. Comer en la escuela y sus circunstancias : aprendizaje, cultura y salud. Programa de la Subdirección General de Proyectos de Investigación del Ministerio de Ciencia e Innovación. Referencia : CSO2009-08741, subprograma SOCI.

POPPENDIECK J. 2010. Free for al l: fixing school food in America. Berkeley : University of California Press.

POULAIN J-P. 2002 Sociologies de l’alimentation. Paris : Presses Universitaires de France.

ROOS G. 2002 « Our Bodies Are Made of Pizza. Food and Embodiment among Children in Kentucky », Ecology of Food and Nutrition 41(1) : 1-19.

ROSS S. 1995 « ‘Do I Really Have to Eat That ?’ : A Qualitative Study of Schoolchildren’s Food Choices and Preferences », Health Education Journal 54(1) : 312-21.

STEWART K., TREASURE E., GILL P. & CHADWICK B. 2006. « Understandings about Food among 6-11 Year-Olds in South Wales », Food, Culture and Society 9(3) : 317-36.

SUREMAIN (de) Ch.-É. 2006 « Affinité horizontale et stratégies de survie parmi les ‘enfants de la rue’. La bande Solitarios à La Paz (Bolivie) », Revue Tiers Monde 47(185) : 113-132.

SUREMAIN (de) Ch.-É. 2010. « S’alimenter pour les enfants de la rue. Entre stratégie de survie et transmission horizontale (La Paz, Bolivie) », communication offerte au Colloque International Consommations alimentaires, cultures enfantines et éducation, Université de Poitiers, 1 Avril 2010.

TORRALBA J.A. & GUIDALLI B.A. 2014 « Developing a Conceptual Framework for Understanding Children’s Eating Practices at School », International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture & Food 21(3) : 275-292.

Top of page


1 Usually, meal services offered by schools in Spain are operated by a catering company (which provides ready-made food daily); alternatively, in a school with its own kitchen facilities staff prepares and serves the meals. A third option is when a catering company supplies the staff and the raw materials needed for the daily preparation of the lunch menus at the school facilities. The type of food service also depends on each lunchroom: the menu may be served to the students seated at their tables or buffet style, using a serving line system with plates or aluminum trays. In general, the Spanish school lunch menu consists of a first course (a starter) usually consisting of rice, vegetables, soup, beans or pasta; a second course (main dish) normally beef, chicken, pork, fish or eggs – often accompanied by salad or garnish of vegetables –; and a dessert, preferably fruit or yogurt. In the vast majority of schools, children have only one daily menu. The daily food options vary only for certain health problems (allergies, celiac disease, diabetes, etc.) or due to ethnic variables (e.g., schoolchildren of Muslim origin are not offered pork). The lunchroom supervisors are key figures ensuring that students consume the meal served, and obey the rules and standards of behavior in the lunchroom. These individuals can be contracted by outside companies (catering or otherwise) or be employed by schools (Guidalli, 2012: 9).

2 The broken phone game refers to whispering to the person next to you a word and following this pattern in a large group until the person who started the word receives it back and calls it to see how different it is from when it started to circulate.

3 The original Spanish responses are shown below:

(1) “La ensalada del comedor no es ensalada, ¡es lechuga! Mi madre, a la ensalada le echa cebolla, zanahoria, aceitunas, queso, manzana, pera, ¡de todo!”.

(2) “La verdura de la escuela está mejor que la verdura de mi casa porque tiene más jugo”.

(3) “En la escuela hay más niños que en casa... para charlar. Esto es algo bueno”.

(4) “Mi madre nunca me ha hecho comer lechuga, entonces no me lo hagas”.

(5) “Y hacen la paella en la olla grande, funda, pero esto no es una paella de verdad. ¡Nosotros queremos como en un restaurante! Tampoco ponen marisco, sólo guisantes y un poco de carne… No es una paella”.

(6) “Un día… ¿qué había?… había una comida muy buena… pero me quedé con hambre. Sabes, como en los restaurantes de lujo que te ponen una cosa muy chica… pues aquí igual. Me pusieron una cosa muy chica y no me han dejado repetir.”

4 Look, they have the table set nicely, with plates…they eat something different… We want a table like that, with plates!”: an 8-years-old girl pointing about the different eating conditions between adults – lunchroom supervisors and teachers – and students (Guidalli, 2012: 11).

Top of page

List of illustrations

Title Iñigo’s school lunchroom
Caption The arrow shows Iñigo movement from the 1rst and 2nd grade table to the 3th grade table.
File image/jpeg, 41k
Top of page


Electronic reference

José A. Torralba and Barbara Atie Guidalli, « Examining Children’s Food Heritage in Spanish schools: A Process of Learning to Become “Eaters-in-Context”? », Anthropology of food [Online], 9 | 2015, Online since 10 August 2015, connection on 17 June 2018. URL :

Top of page

About the authors

José A. Torralba

University of Hawaii at Manoa,

Barbara Atie Guidalli

ODELA (Observatorio de la Alimentación), Universidad de Barcelona,

Top of page


Licence Creative Commons
Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Top of page