Clare Pettinger

How arts can give more people a seat at the table? Plymouth academic says arts can give voice to issues

Problems of food waste, poor nutrition and associated social issues are ever-present throughout the UK and beyond.

But a University of Plymouth academic, as part of the Food Research Collaboration (FRC), suggests that using art-based methods for food research can shed more light on the complexities of these problems, and why they exist.

Dr Clare Pettinger, Lecturer in Public Health Dietetics, contributed to the FRC review entitled Using the Arts for Food Research and Dialogue [pdf].

The authors’ main interest is the way in which art-based methods – including photography, performance and poetry – can help reveal, and give voice to, perspectives on food issues which remain otherwise absent from research and policy debates.

From creating collages with a community centre, to writing and rehearsing spoken poetry in schools, the methods challenge both how data is collected and the information it yields – with conversations beginning to open up around the social complexities of what people eat and why.

The writers acknowledged that the data is ‘messy’, but stressed that most art-based research required participation from those involved, which offered the opportunity to delve deeper into the issues being explored.

Dr Pettinger said: “Food research is an incredibly complex area – dealing with everything from how food is made, to improving the nutrition of socially marginalised groups.

“Art-based research methods don’t provide definitive answers, but they open up new questions, which is just as valuable – if not more so.

“These methods help us to understand both what the problems are and why these problems might exist, which we hope will ultimately contribute to transforming our food system. We need to tackle its infrastructure, so that the future of food is optimised in relation to human and planetary health.”

Dr Pettinger detailed her Food as a Lifestyle Motivator (FLM) project in the report, explaining how its use of creative methods – including participatory action research and photo elicitation – gained insight into how food affected the lives of service users at a Plymouth homeless centre – giving service users an outlet for expression that they might not have considered before.

During the FLM pilot phase, six homeless service users were each given a camera and asked to take photos of their own food activities over a 10-day period. This was the only direction they received and, while some took photos of cows in fields, or the milk in their tea, others took photos of their pets, the food they eat and the canteen – all telling a story about what food means to them.

Some of these narratives can be found in a new media impact piece that was shown recently at Totnes Transition Town Film Festival, entitled Cooking beat the demons in my head.

She said: “The use of creative measures to connect with the service users really highlighted how food can have a positive effect, acting as a catalyst to connect people. It provides meaningful occupation, and, by encouraging the service users to be imaginative, it gave them an outlet for expression that they may not have considered before.

“The service users have complicated lives – some things you would expect, poor nutrition, isolation, addiction and social issues – but there was so much that they took from this project.

‘It is clear from the findings that creative food activities can generate a virtuous circle, where food promotes engagement and engagement promotes interest in self-care.”

(from a press release)