My research (the Food as a Lifestyle Motivator (FLM) project) has explored the use of creative methods to engage with homeless individuals in discussions about their wellbeing. The project demonstrates that food, as well as being central to many health concerns, may also be a powerful ‘lifestyle motivator’ for those on the edges of society. During the project, powerful visual and narrative food themed data have been generated that provided a ‘voice’ for homeless individuals, challenging traditional research paradigms and identifying innovative approaches for engaging and empowering community groups that are traditionally ‘harder-to-reach’.
FLM was based on local evaluation work showing that, by engaging in food projects, unemployed and homeless individuals showed improvements in eating, self-esteem, and social skills (Pettinger and Whitelaw, 2012)1. I saw, first hand, socially excluded individuals being so moved and empowered by food activities that something really shifted in them. This was a ‘light bulb’ moment for me in my (early) research career!
The stark realities of extreme poverty (homelessness) are well documented, including food-related chronic/acute health problems and drug/alcohol addictions. Such transient communities have multiple and complex needs that present challenges for researchers, therefore, a democratic and creative approach can be beneficial.
The FLM pilot used ‘Photo-Elicitation’, which involved participants being issued with disposable cameras, given brief instructions on their use, then taking photos of their food activities over a ten-day period. Photos were then developed and focus groups run for them to discuss their images. In this context, the photograph is seen as a neutral third party (Schulze, 2007)2 and particularly useful when discussing issues with ‘vulnerable’ people (Liamputtong, 2009)3. Our findings illustrate how self-captured food photos (see selected examples) can both facilitate the process of food research itself, but also generate important ‘in-roads’ for lifestyle and wellbeing enhancements. Our small sample of nine homeless service users provided powerful narratives, showing that for them, food holds meaning, elicits emotion and exerts power; and that the food environment can be a critical social place: food preparation can provide companionship and occupation. Thus revealing the highly individualised perspectives of those who are doing the best they can in light of multiple deprivations.
"Food has become a major part of my life. I really enjoy cooking actually it beat the demons in my head……look how far I have come…" (Ross)
With hunger a topic of national debate, there is an urgent need to consider how to engage better with socially excluded individuals and communities. Creative approaches, such as Photo Elicitation, offer great potential and as such should be endorsed by public health directorates across the country.
This project has gained a lot of local (and regional) interest because it ‘ticks the box’ for innovative commissioning practices. Not only can this approach be used as a means to enhance health and wellbeing in a diverse range of service users, it can also be used for public consultation on service (re)design. Other than publishing the work (currently underway), current FLM data collection with service providers across the city is mapping food related assets and using ‘appreciative inquiry’ interviews to establish key priorities. Thus aiming for these approaches to be embedded into the local inequalities strategy, to inform food/nutrition policies - recommending the use of participatory socially inclusive food activities as part of service provision.
"Getting involved in food can be a starting point to address other things that are ‘broken’ and lead to progress in other ways" (quote from homeless shelter keyworker). Creative food methods can offer meaningful occupation, thus generating a virtuous circle where food promotes engagement and engagement promotes interest in self-care. Food, therefore, becomes an expression of empowerment, with the potential to enhance health, wellbeing and social justice.
- Pettinger C and Whitelaw E (2012) Food Cultures: Growing, cooking, eating: “An exploration of improving food practices in young men and older adults in Plymouth” Report written for DH funded project. Unpublished - available at http://www.foodplymouth.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Food-Cultures-FINAL.pdf
- Schulze, S (2007) The usefulness of reflexive photography for qualitative research: a case study in higher education. South African Journal of Higher Education 21 (5) 536-553
- Liamputtong P (2009) Researching the vulnerable. A guide to sensitive research methods. London Sage. p112