The Social Politics of Nutrition

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[This post is part of Foodscapes of Plenty and Want – a theme week at ActiveHistoy.ca that features podcasts exploring a number of topics related to the interconnected histories of food, health, and the environment in Canada. For more information and a schedule for the week, see the introductory post here.]

In the context of growing calls to deal with the so-called “obesity epidemic,” nutrition experts and all levels of government have been asked to work together to intervene in the diets of Canadians in order to prevent what is widely believed to be a looming public health crisis.  But this is not the first time that nutrition experts and various levels of government in Canada have joined forces to transform the bodies and health of the Canadian public.

Each of the talks that follow explore some of the historical precedents for cooperation (and disagreement) between nutrition experts and governments. Whether it is the much more contemporary fight against junk food and fast food outlets in schools or efforts by the government of Quebec to study and intervene in the diets of ordinary Quebecers, there is much we can learn about the social politics of nutrition in the past to help us understand the context of contemporary public health efforts. What, for instance, can we learn from these case studies about the advantages and pitfalls of scientifically grounded public policy, particularly when the scientific consensus around the components of a healthy diet have changed quite dramatically over the past century? What role to the politics, economics, and culture of food play in determining the nature and scope of public health nutrition programs?

Catherine Gidney, “’Nutritional Wastelands’: Vending Machines, Fast Food Outlets, and the Fight over Junk Food in Canadian Schools.”

To listen to Catherine’s talk, click here (or save by right-clicking and selecting ‘save file as’)

In September 2003 Cindi Seddon, the new principal of Pitt River Middle School in Port Coquitlam, B.C., introduced healthy food into the school cafeteria. Gone were the McDonald’s burgers and fries, KFC and Pizza Hut.  Instead, the new menu consisted of fresh sandwiches, bagels, macaroni and cheese, fruit and milk, In the vending machines Seddon replaced chocolate bars and caffeinated beverages with granola bars and fruit juices. Despite support from staff and parents, district officials subsequently overruled her actions. What prompted this reversal and how did fast food inundate school cafeterias in the first place?

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Catherine Gidney

In her fascinating talk, Catherine Gidney examines the process by which school administrators in the 1990s began to sign exclusive soft-drink deals and introduce fast-food franchises into cafeterias as well as the reaction from parents, teachers, and students.  Educational and anti-corporate activists have illuminated, and decried, the increasing commercialism of Canadian schools as a result of the deep funding cuts to education since the 1980s.  Some contemporary work has examined the nature and impact of exclusivity deals in universities.  Yet there has been no systematic investigation of the entry of Big Food into Canadian public schools.

Based primarily on newspaper reports since the early 1990s, Gidney’s talk therefore examines the entrance of Big Food into Canadian schools. But it also does so by taking a long-term historical perspective from the 1950s to the present for context. It looks at the responses of teachers, students, parents, and trustees to this process and, in doing so, reveals some of the early local alternatives developed in reaction to unhealthy cafeterias.  Most importantly, it uncovers the process by which provincial governments, as a result of public outcry to increasing child obesity, school commercialism, and the underfunding of schools, have begun to implement bans on soft drinks and to introduce healthy food in cafeterias. 

Caroline Durand, “Patates, pain et lard salé valaient-ils mieux qu’un hot dog et des frites? La diète quotidienne et la santé au Québec, 1860-1945.” [French Language Podcast]

To listen to Caroline’s talk, click here (or save by right-clicking and selecting ‘save file as’) 

[Le français suit.] As Caroline Durand’s talk on the history of diet and health in Quebec shows, apprehensions about nutrition, health, and environment sometimes bring on nostalgia for the food of days gone by. This food is idealized by popular writers like Michael Pollan for, amongst other reasons, its supposed health benefits. But what do we actually now about daily diet in the past and the anxieties it provoked? Durand’s talk examines this question by describing the main changes that have occurred in the diets of francophone Quebecers between 1860 and 1945 and by analyzing expert commentary and advice on diet and health in the same period. It also addresses methodological considerations that flow from a context in which doctors, nurses, and teachers monitored the dietary regimen of their charges. How, for instance, do we compare dietary differences over time, when scientific and medical discoveries have changed the available sources, and descriptive and prescriptive discourses are often tainted by their author’s subjectivity?

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François Guérard (left) and Caroline Durand (right)

By cross-examining descriptions of meals and diets, nutritional advice, information about general population health, and secondary sources, Durand retraces the effects of industrialization and urbanization on the eating habits of peasantry and on workers in Quebec. In doing so, she shows that expert concerns about diet did not always arise from changes experts observed or from the discovery of cause and effect relationships between diet and illness. Experts’ apprehensions seem more often to have been produced by the social, political, or economic context of the time and by scientific discoveries that transformed the way dietary information was collected at the outset of the twentieth century. Her fascinating talk therefore brings together the history of practice and discourse, in order to enrich our understanding of the history of dietary regimens in Canada, and to clarify the roles of different social actors in the definition of dietary problems.

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Les craintes actuelles concernant la nutrition, la santé et l’environnement provoquent parfois un sentiment de nostalgie pour l’alimentation d’autrefois, idéalisée entre autres pour ses avantages supposés pour la santé. Mais que sait-on de l’alimentation quotidienne du passé et des inquiétudes qu’elle suscitait ? Notre communication traitera de cette question en décrivant les principaux changements survenus dans la diète des Québécois francophones entre 1860 et 1945 et en analysant les commentaires et les conseils sur l’alimentation et la santé émis par les experts de l’époque. Nous aborderons aussi quelques considérations méthodologiques découlant du contexte dans lequel les médecins, infirmières et enseignantes observent le régime alimentaire de leurs contemporains. Comment comparer des diètes à travers le temps lorsque les découvertes scientifiques et médicales modifient les sources disponibles et que les discours descriptifs et prescriptifs sont souvent teintés par la subjectivité de leur auteur ?

En croisant descriptions de repas et de diètes, conseils nutritionnels, sources sur l’état de santé de la population et sources secondaires, nous retracerons l’impact de l’industrialisation et de l’urbanisation sur l’alimentation des paysans et ouvriers du Québec. Nous montrerons que les inquiétudes des experts sur la diète ne proviennent pas toujours des changements observés ou de la découverte d’une causalité entre la diète et une maladie. Leurs craintes semblent naître plus souvent du contexte social, politique et économique et des développements scientifiques, qui transforment la manière de récolter de l’information sur l’alimentation au début du vingtième siècle. Nous joindrons donc l’étude des pratiques à celle des discours pour enrichir et nuancer notre compréhension de l’histoire des régimes alimentaires au Canada et éclairer le rôle de quelques acteurs sociaux dans la définition des problèmes alimentaires. 

François Guérard, “La recherche et la boîte à lunch: l’alimentation des Québécois de 1937 à 1975.” [French Language Podcast]

To listen to François’ talk, click here (or save by right-clicking and selecting ‘save file as’)

[Le français suit.] After 1930, the Canada’s federal and provincial governments embarked upon research that sought to address several crucial questions: what did people eat, what nutritional value did their food have, and what changes should be made to their eating habits? In his talk, François Guérard examines research in these areas in Quebec, the results of that research, and the research’s contribution to new public health policies between 1937, when Quebec health officials began to investigate dietary questions, and 1975, when the Quebec results of a pan-Canadian study were published.

Guérard shows that over these decades a whole series of investigations were undertaken in contexts such as cities, the countryside, schools, at home and in the factory, on schoolchildren, families, workers, as well as on elderly people. These investigations, on which many different institutions worked together, have left traces in government archives as well as in a multitude of publications such as government department reports and journal articles. Such sources, he argues, enable us to pick up on the beginnings of dietary research on Quebecers and on the research questions that researchers once asked. These dietary researchers, starting at with a rudimentary methodology, studied dietary deficiencies, but eventually they focused on overweight individuals and the problem of obesity. Over time, Guérard suggests, they gradually expanded their undertaking to cover a complete range of ages and social groups, while sounding the alarm for increased public awareness.

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À partir des années 1930, les gouvernements fédéral et provinciaux au Canada ont lancé des recherches visant à répondre à quelques questions cruciales : que mange la population, quelles sont ses carences nutritionnelles, quelles modifications devraient être apportées à ses habitudes alimentaires? La présente communication aborde cette activité de recherche au Québec, ses résultats et sa contribution à la définition de nouvelles politiques de santé publique, de l’année 1937 lorsque les responsables sanitaires québécois lancent leur première enquête, jusque 1975 alors que sont publiés les résultats pour le Québec d’une étude pancanadienne.

Au fil des décennies, toute une série d’enquêtes ont été menées à la ville, à la campagne, à l’école, au foyer ou à l’usine, dans les boîtes à lunch ou les cafétérias, auprès d’écoliers, de familles, de travailleurs ou encore de vieillards. Ces enquêtes auxquelles ont collaboré diverses institutions ont laissé des traces dans les archives gouvernementales ainsi que dans plusieurs publications telles des rapports de ministères et des articles de revues. Pareille documentation permet d’appréhender les débuts de la recherche sur l’alimentation des Québécois, de même que les questionnements de l’époque. Les chercheurs, à l’aide d’une méthodologie d’abord approximative, ont longtemps traqué les carences avant de finalement s’inquiéter de l’embonpoint. Ils ont progressivement élargi leurs démarches à toute l’échelle des âges et des groupes sociaux, et sonné l’alarme en appelant à l’élaboration de programmes éducatifs plus énergiques.

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