Thursday, 3 September 2015

Getting our hands greasy: The joys of researching food and drink sold near secondary schools

Guest post by Wendy Wills, Sociologist of Food and Public Health, University of Hertfordshire

Next Wednesday (9 September) I will be at Durham University to present and discuss the findings from a study which colleagues and I conducted that focused on exploring the reasons that young teenagers at secondary school buy food and drink outside school.

It was a busy project, with just two weeks at each of our seven selected case study schools to run an online survey in classes of 13-15 year olds, as well as asking them to take part in a written exercise and focus groups. We also conducted interviews with the young people, as well as the head teachers, school kitchen supervisors and local retailers. Over 600 young people took part. I had two brilliant early career researchers working full time collecting data in Scotland (the work was funded by the Food Standards Agency north of the border) plus some part time help from colleagues.

I love conducting fieldwork – there is nothing quite like getting your hands dirty (or greasy in this case but more on that later) during data collection and no better way to fully get to the heart of your research questions than being ‘in the field’ with your team. I particularly enjoy research with young people as they are often very happy to tell you exactly what they think and indeed, they are often pleased to be asked about matters that they are often not consulted about – such as the food and drink they have access to.
So, being in Scotland and racing from classroom to chip shop to follow young people (with their consent of course!) as they decide where to go on a particular day to buy their lunch was something of an adventure.

The young people had us salivating over their lunchtime purchases, though not for any health-related reason! For the most part it was the complete opposite. Part of our plan was to purchase the same edibles as the young people we accompanied so that we could weigh and record each item (to later conduct a nutritional analysis of the unpackaged food and drink they bought). We often had bags full of (extremely cheap) deep fried ‘chicken balls’ with luminous orange sweet and sour sauce from takeaway shops; warm sausage rolls with the grease oozing through their paper bags from bakeries and bottles of bright green, blue or orange ‘energy drinks’ from corner shops that sometimes had questionable hygiene and/or felt a little intimidating.
'Chicken balls'
As all this action happened over lunchtime you can imagine the team were often hungry by the time we left each school and so we sometimes resorted to trying some of the rapidly cooling food and drink that filled the boot of our car. The worst thing I tried was the battered and deep fried pizza slice – words cannot really describe it – the hard and tasteless pizza base, the smear of tomato paste, the greasy battered coating.

The fieldwork did not only provide us with greasy hands but also an appetite for supporting effective policies and interventions that promote healthy eating to secondary school pupils.

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