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Discourse of the School Dinners Debate

Project: Non-funded ProjectProjects

1/02/0731/01/08

The 'Discourse of the School Dinners Debate' is a one year ESRC funded project. Professor Guy Cook of the Open University is the Principal Investigator; Julia Gillen the co-investigator, with Alison Twiner as a full time research assistant. The main idea is to conduct an analysis of the language being used in the debate, and how stakeholders and the public respond to it. The project is creating and analysing three datasets: a) a corpus of at least 250,000 words of documents produced by a variety of stakeholders (government agencies, schools, caterers, food broadcasters, NGOs etc. b) transcripts of 20 semi-structured interviews with stakeholders asking them about their communication strategies, choice of words and perceptions of public, parents' and childrens concerns and views. c) transcripts of focus group discussions of children (primary and secondary) and parents.

The school meal issue is a rich site for research as it brings together many important contemporary issues of international concern. Firstly it reflects increasing disquiet about children's health and diet. Secondly, it is part of a wider debate about food politics and the need for an environmentally sustainable agriculture to feed a burgeoning world population. Thirdly, it sharply highlights differences of opinion over the degree to which the state, the market or the family should be responsible for individual well-being. Like many other issues of public concern, the school meals debate brings together stakeholders with different ways of talking about the same thing. In addition it takes place against the emotive topic of children's welfare, making interested participants determined to have their voices heard. All this makes it a particularly fruitful site for research into the role of language in shaping both policy and opinion.

This project aims to improve communication in the debate about school meals provision in Britain. It focuses upon the language of the debate, and considers the impact upon policy and opinion of different ways of talking about the issue. To do this it looks at the way language is used and understood by the diverse stakeholders, such as parents, children, teachers, nutritionists, caterers, policy makers, environmentalists, broadcasters. It applies a range of discourse analytic techniques to the genres involved, contrasting for example official reports, school newsletters, campaign literature, and media coverage. The aim is twofold. Firstly, the project seeks to inform the formation of policy and opinion on school meals by uncovering different agendas and understandings in the debate. Secondly, it seeks to develop knowledge of the role of language and different ways of talking in matters of public interest.

The project is one of a series led by Guy Cook on the language of food politics

Recent conference presentations include:

Gillen, J., Cook, G. &amp; Twiner, A. (2008) "I'm having on my tombstone: 'he got a daily fresh vegetable on the school menu'": the UK school dinners debate. Poster presented at <em>Ecologies of Diversities: the developmental and historical interarticulation of human meditational forms: meeting of the International Society for Cultural and Activity Research, San Diego,USA. September 8-13.

Cook, G., Twiner, A. &amp; Gillen, J. (2008) "Saint Jamie", "A normal bloke": celebrity language in public debate, the Jamie Oliver school-dinners intervention. Paper presented at British Association of Annual Linguistics 41st annual conference. University of Swansea, September 11-13.