Children as health advocates in families

Our ARC project Children as Health advocates: assessing the consequences commenced in 2016. That project emerged as a result of our concerns about obesity discourses and assumptions by policy makers and public health institutions that schools are a key place where ‘obesity’ can be tackled. In particular, we noted that schools are being called on to mobilise children as health advocates within their families and that multiple school food programs have emerged in part as an attempt to curb the obesity problem. But we wondered what happened when schools recruit children to address their family’s health practices: What were the messages emerging in school food discourses? Were these ‘messages’ effective for children? How did children feel about this responsibility if so? How did families respond if children were sharing school food messages at home?

Our key research questions

  • To explore how children experience the public health call to become advocates for healthy eating in their families;
  • To explore family responses to obesity prevention education including physical education messages brought home by children from schools and how family relationships and interactions are impacted and changed.

Our key research findings

We found a complex and messy picture: families are doing their best, and school messages are sometimes not clear and often focus too strongly on the negative and on rules: not how we eat and live together in family contexts.

  • Our research shows that children take home little food knowledge from school.
  • School messages reinforce an understanding of food as instrumentally concerned with health: such rules reinforce food as discrete entities or categories, such as fruit, vegetables, protein, carbohydrates. School food policies, reinforce this atomisation and instrumentality.
  • There are so many school programs that confusion is almost inevitable. Evaluations are sparse.
  • Children affirm their family food practices and assert that their food knowledge is primarily as a result of their interaction with their parents, grandparents and siblings.
  • The families show that much of family food work is relational – central to children’s understanding of food as pleasurable. Parental attention to children’s health centred on wellbeing, comfort and pleasure.

Another important outcome of our research was the development of the Schooling Food Exhibition, designed to bring these familial stories about their everyday food practices and the dissonances in the school discourses children and families heard to life. The objectives of this exhibition were to encourage more creative, flexible and respectful responses to the foodwork families do, and to their holistic and comprehensive definitions of the ‘health’ of their children. For schools and policy makers, there may be unexplored opportunities to support and enhance rather than to critique and judge.

Project Team


Professor JaneMaree Maher (Monash University) Dr Deana Leahy (Monash University) Dr Sian Supski (Monash University) Project Research Fellow Professor Jan Wright (University of Wollongong) Professor Jo Lindsay (Monash University) Dr Claire Tanner (University of Melbourne)

Final Project Outcomes

  1. Final Research Report: How families hear school food messages: From Children as Health Advocates to Schooling Food
  2. Schooling Food Exhibition
  3. Take a virtual visit to our Exhibition installation at Monash Gallery

Follow our work @SchoolingFood