Journal of Linguistic Anthropology

“What's in Your Lunch Box Today?”: Health, Respectability, and Ethnicity in the Primary Classroom


  • The research for this paper was made possible by the Danish Independent Research Council, Grant no. 09-066462.


Much socialization of children into healthy food practices takes place in the educational system. However, teachers' understandings of healthy food may differ from those of students and parents. Furthermore, health is connected to respectability. Thus, food socialization concerns more than nutritional values. This study examines lunchtime interactions between minority students and majority teachers in a Danish classroom. I show that certain traditional food items (rye bread) are treated as superior to certain others that minority children regularly bring. Children are accountable for lunch boxes, and cultural and personal preferences are disregarded if at odds with dominant understandings of healthy food. [language socialization, classroom interaction, respectability, multicultural classroom, interaction analyses]


This is a study on the linguistic and interactional use of the concept of health and more particularly of healthy food. I will show how health is an important, meaningful and consequential category in lunch encounters between teachers and children in a primary classroom in Copenhagen, Denmark. Although there has been some work on language and food socialization (e.g., Anving and Sellerberg 2010; Aronsson and Gottzén 2011; Ochs et al. 1996; Ochs and Shohet 2006; Paugh and Izquierdo 2009), children's food and eating practices in institutional settings is a particularly neglected area within discourse studies (but see Burgess and Morrison 1998; Maegaard 2007; Twiner et al. 2009). Yet, schools in many countries have been involved in the food socialization of children for a long time (cf. Allison 2008; Golden 2005; Salazar 2007; Salazar et al. 2008; Weaver-Hightower 2011), and this is increasingly true today.1 In the classroom studied, as well as more generally, it remains an unquestioned moral imperative that everybody should eat healthy food rather than unhealthy food (see also Coupland and Coupland 2009). Healthy food is often treated as a scientific, hence objective and value-neutral, category, but even so people do not necessarily agree to which food items the quality of healthy applies (Margetts et al. 1997; Wiggins 2001). We know that food practices are indexical of cultural beliefs (Adelson 1998; Counihan and Van Esterik 2008; Mintz and Du Bois 2002), that they are tied to tradition as well as to morality (Biltekoff 2002; Backett 1992; Coveney 2006; Iacovetta 2006) and identity (Caplan 1997a, b; Lupton 1996; Modan 2001) at least as much as to nutrition, hunger, and health (Germov and Williams 2008; Harris 1986; Johansson et al. 2009:36). Furthermore the sharing of food, or commensality, is an activity that “promotes the experience of belonging to a particular social group” (Husby et al. 2008; Lupton 1996: 38). We also know that health is constructed, enacted and attributed with meaning in interaction and as part of everyday life (Ochs et al. 1996; Paugh and Izquierdo 2009; Wiggins 2001, 2004). Consequently, as group belonging is constructed discursively (cp. Blommaert 2005:ch. 8), discourse about food is actually doubly constructive of belonging.

In this paper I focus on the emergent and local meanings of what is treated as healthy food, on its indexicalities and moral dimensions, and on a majority classroom's assimilative pressures on minority students, disguised within a discourse of health. My study takes an empirical starting-point in an ethnically and culturally diverse grade 0 (age 5–7), the first year of compulsory school in Denmark. Methodologically the study combines ethnographic insights from a year long fieldwork with micro-analyses of audio- and videorecordings. I analyze five excerpts of lunch-time interactions, primarily between teachers and children, that illustrate teachers' heavy attempts at socializing children into particular stances to and understandings of food items, explicitly as well as by means of implicature and indirectness. I focus on the teachers' emphasis of the superiority of rye bread, a traditional type of whole grain bread in Denmark (Meyer and Boyhus 2002). The teachers justify this superiority in terms of health. As health is treated as an objective category and a moral standard, it provides the teachers with an opportunity to evaluate cultural and personal preferences on a hierarchical scale. By the same token, health, respectability, and ethnicity are conflated. Given that food practices serve both as symbols of cultural and ethnic identity and are indexical of morality and respectability, attempts to change them concerns much more than health (cf. Coupland and Coupland 2009). It is minority-majority relations rather than just food, nutrition, and health that are negotiated at the lunch table, and consequently the present study of food events in a primary classroom throws new light on linguistically performed, cultural processes in ethnically heterogeneous communities in late modern societies.

Theoretically, the focus on language use in an urban school characterized by an ethnically/culturally diverse population of students situates the study centrally within the tradition of Linguistic Ethnography (LE) (Blommaert 2010; Creese 2008; Rampton et al. 2007) and adds to recent sociolinguistic work on constructions of ethnicity and identity in late modernity (Blackledge and Creese 2009; Blommaert and Rampton 2011; Møller 2010; Rampton 2006). In addition, the emphasis on linguistically performed socialization and of language as indexical of cultural relationships and emerging identities places the study as part of the framework of Language Socialization (LS) (Garrett and Baquedano-López 2002; Kulick and Schieffelin 2004; Ochs 1988; Schieffelin 1990). It is a cardinal assumption within both the framework of LS, as of LE, that the way individuals speak reflects culturally embedded understandings of human beings as such (Schieffelin and Ochs 1986; Kramsch 2002). With that in mind we can conclude that teachers' (experts') talk about food actually concerns a more general social order. I argue that it indexes cultural processes and respectability more generally. This study is, then, if not so much a study of the socialization “to the use of language” then indeed a study of socialization “through the use of language” as well as to the understanding of self, belonging, identity, and ethnicity.

Responses to cultural differences of food and health practices

Food practices are cultural practices, as discussed in anthropology since classic scholars such as Claude Lévi-Strauss, Margaret Mead, and Mary Douglas (see Counihan and Van Esterik 2008; Mintz and Du Bois 2002). In addition, there seems to be a perceived relation between national and cultural belonging, on the one side, and food practices, on the other (Bonnekessen 2010; Daniel 2006; Kaplan 1999). This may be one reason why the food practices of immigrants are often treated with suspicion. Groups of people understand and evaluate the same food item—milk, white bread, and so on—differently depending on the context: immigration, as Blommaert points out, (2008, 2010), involves shifts of context and of cultural and linguistic indexicalities. By eating something different than the majority population, immigrants index different understandings of belonging and of self. In a new cultural context the traditional food practices stand out, and they may lead to different reactions. In Canada, in the early cold-war period, classes were provided for women immigrants to change their “backwards” food practices by teaching them more modern “Canadian” understandings of hygiene, nutrition, and so forth (Iacovetta 2006). Canadian food practices were simply regarded as better and therefore as more appropriate for Canadian citizens, and in relation to immigrant groups the adoption of these practices came to signal individuals' integration into the new society. Some individuals experience the discovery of differences in food practices as a shock. This was the case in Salazar's (2007) study of Mexican child immigrants' lunch-time memories from U.S. cafeteria. In the U.S. the children were presented with unfamiliar food and with food that would be inappropriate for lunch in Mexico (no fresh fruit, milk for lunch, cold tacos). In contrast, according to Bradby (1997), young women of Punjabi origin living in Scotland could and did eat food associated with home culture as well as with the majority culture. At the same time they signaled a difference in perceived closeness to the different types of food by means of the deictic (possessive) pronouns “our” (food) and “their” (food). Salazar's and Bradby's studies show that food practices, like language, can index community affiliations, national and ethnic identity. In extension, a preference for nontraditional foods may signal or be taken as a preference of nontraditional values and refusal of ethnic (minority) identity (Vallianatos and Raine 2008:367).

In addition to this the category of “healthy food,” as evoked in the data presented in the following analysis, is not objectively defined, and even official dietary guidelines in Western countries are influenced by individual, economic and political interests (Falbe and Nestle 2008), as well as by cultural ideologies (Iacovetta 2006). Moreover, experts' understandings of a healthy diet differ in many ways from those of non-experts (Calnan 1990; Croll et al. 2001). Although some food items seem to be more universally agreed to be “good,” for instance fruits and vegetables (Johansson et al. 2009), and some as “bad,” for instance sweet and fatty foods (Calnan 1990:35; Margetts et al. 1997), nonexperts have difficulties translating advice in terms of calories and nutrients into the food items they meet in everyday life (Wiggins 2004). In addition to this we also find intragroup variation in understandings of healthy food (Margetts et al. 1997; Calnan 1990; Johansson et al. 2009; Stewart et al. 2006). This variation can be tied to class (Bourdieu 1986), gender (Lupton 1996; Caplan 1997b:9f; Holden 2008) and age or life-stage (Bradby 1997; Lupton 1996; McIntosh and Kubena 2008; Ochs and Shohet 2006). In sum, food practices are used to construct, demonstrate and interpret individuals' affiliation to social communities. The inter- and intracultural variation becomes particularly visible in migration situations, and food practices may become objects of (or attempts at) resocialization. As the understanding of healthy food depends on the understanding of what is edible at all, even health is a culturally embedded concept.

Language Socialization and the morality of food practices in families

The present paper is a study of language socialization in school. An LS approach aims to understand the processes through which novices become members of cultural groups. In felicitous socialization processes they become competent and appropriate members, and this is usually the goal of expert members' socializing strategies. Socialization takes place through language and may also have (appropriate) language use as a goal. Many LS studies have taken their empirical starting point in family dinners (Blum-Kulka 1997; Blum-Kulka and Snow 2002; Larson et al. 2006; Pan et al. 1999; Paugh and Izquierdo 2009). Children participate in the family dinner on an almost daily basis, and thereby it becomes a cultural site of socialization where children are socialized into specific understandings of social order (Ochs et al. 1996; Ochs and Shohet 2006). Asymmetric relations between participants are constructed both linguistically (who says what and to whom), interactionally (through the distribution of speaking rights and possibilities) and through the organization of the meal: who is served by whom, who decides how much it is appropriate to eat, and when to eat it, and so forth (Lupton 1996; Ochs and Shohet 2006:37). As remarked by Ochs and Shohet (2006: 35f), mealtimes are both vehicles for and endpoints of culture. However, as in other social situations, authorities' understanding of social order and social relations may also be negotiated, contested, and modified. Children can take on contrasting affective stances, such as positioning themselves as adults, as serious guardians of food morality, or as accomplices of their younger siblings (Aronsson and Gottzén 2011; also Wiggins 2001:455, 2004:542f).

An important element of social order concerns how the food consumed is constructed linguistically. In a seminal study, Ochs et al. (1996) showed how children in U.S. American and Italian families' were socialized linguistically to significantly different cultural attitudes towards food. The American families talked about nutritional value whereas the Italian families talked about sensory qualities and personal taste preferences. At the same time, in the U.S. families, dessert was presented as what the children wanted to eat and main course as what they should eat. Thereby the families constructed eating nutritional food as a moral obligation and dessert as a reward for satisfying this obligation. In accordance with this analysis, Paugh and Izquierdo (2009) reported that U.S. parents defined health as a moral category. As parents claimed responsibility over children's health, debates over eating slipped into judgments about who was a “good” and “bad” parent or child (Paugh and Izquierdo 2009:186; also Backett 1992). Thereby the linguistic construction of healthy food depends on interpersonal relations and on the prevailing understanding of social order. The meaning of qualitative predicates applied at food events, such as healthy, good, enjoyable, is attributed locally and in context, as part of other discursively enacted activities, such as enforcing or resisting hierarchical relations, positioning self and other as “parent,”“child,”“male,”“teenager,” complimenting and doing “parenting” or “doing being a child” (Wiggins 2001, 2004; Wiggins et al. 2001).

A third aspect of the family meal concerns the orientation towards the sharing of food and of food understandings. Anving and Sellerberg (2010) discuss the tension between individual preferences and commonality in a study on mealtime socialization in Sweden. Parents orient to the meal as a place to teach children about the family's food culture and the “same food on everyone's plate” indexes the child's integration into this family food culture (Anving and Sellerberg 2010:207). The individual's suppression of own preferences is strongly encouraged as parents praise children if they eat food they dislike, and complaints are seen as rejections of the socialization process (Anving and Sellerberg 2010:208).

Food in schools

Another important context for food socialization is the school. Most school-age children consume at least one meal here, and whereas the relation between food and morality is defined and enforced by caretakers in the family setting, at school other institutional authorities such as teachers take over. The school's food ideology can be very strong and applied with forceful enthusiasm, and local authorities—such as teachers—use multiple methods to signal to children that when in school they and their food consumption are subjected to a school-based regime. Coveney (2008:225f) argues that the popularized version of nutrition information that is appropriated on a lay level (for instance, by teachers and parents) becomes a technology of power and plays a role in the attempts at producing normality (see also Coveney 2006). However, in school the understanding of normality—as that of appropriate food practices—may differ from that in children's homes, and yet children are made aware that they have to abide by it. As food has symbolic value, school lunch may become a battlefield between home and school with the individual child located in the very uneasy middle position.

In some schools, children bring boxed lunches, produced by caregivers, and when brought to school these lunch-boxes come to index home cultural values (Allison 2008). They are a symbolic gifts as well as signifiers of home. Yet, in spite of their sensitive character, lunch-boxes may become subject to teaching practices as teachers inspect them and either ratify or do not ratify their content (Allison 2008; Golden 2005). Allison (2008) argues that in nursery schools in Japan the lunch-box has a paradoxical character. On the one hand, it is regarded as a comfort for the small school child, a private possession in a space with very little privacy. On the other hand, when transported into the institutional setting, the lunch-box is no longer a private belonging but an institutional object. Teachers may use their hierarchically privileged position to insist that students eat more than they want or need. Such actions are justified in different ways; teachers invoke health, respect for less fortunate or starving children, respect for the caretaker's food preparation, and so forth (Burgess and Morrison 1998). Institutional adults can also use food regimes to create social divisions, as in the ethnically diverse U.K. primary school reported on by Burgess and Morrison (1998). The categories deployed by dinner ladies and canteen supervisors are not necessarily consistent with children's own understandings of identities or affiliations, but they are nonnegotiable and inflexible. Who brings and who buys lunch, who eats meat and who does not, who is a noisy child and who is not, are differences that come to make a difference. Of course, some rules, for example, those described by Burgess and Morrison (1998), may be enforced in order to facilitate few adult caretakers' control of a large group of students rather than for ideological purposes. In contrast, in Golden (2005) food events are used to socialize an ethnically diverse group of Israeli kindergartners into the understanding of national identity as this is interpreted by the teacher. At occasions of national significance the teacher organized elaborate food events and provided an explicitly national framework for evaluating these food practices. In contrast, food and food practices connected to occasions of individual importance such as birthdays and the daily snack-break received remarkably little attention. When teachers ideologically pair national identity and food culture, immigrants and minority groups are easily alienated (Salazar 2007). In addition, school food programs may exert a very strong pressure on minority students to adopt majority food norms (Salazar 2007).

To sum up so far, food practices are complex interactional accomplishments. Through participation in food events children are socialized by local authorities into specific understandings of food practices, social order and social identity, and language is a powerful medium in this socialization process. The understanding of health takes part in a social order, and “healthy” or “good” food are culture and context-dependent concepts, defined discursively and in interaction. Healthy food is a moral standard in that it is treated as the right choice, the good choice, the choice that positions the child as a respectable individual (Ochs and Kremer-Sadlik 2007). It is also clear that given its heavy moral load, food socialization in schools can become a form of symbolic violence (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977) for children whose food practices are not part of the “mainstream” as defined by the school.

Methodology and data

This study builds on data from a larger project on language socialization and language use during the first year of formal schooling in Copenhagen, Denmark. The children were followed closely over the course of one school year (10 months) and more extensively the following year. The children were video- and audio-recorded in class, during breaks, and in after-school activities, resulting in more than 300 hours of audio-recording and more than 150 hours of video-recording; among these a considerable amount were recordings from lunch. Most parents were interviewed1, and so were, on several occasions, the two teachers and the school principal. The audio- and videodata were transcribed in a broad standard, and selected sequences then retranscribed using a more fine-grained approach (See appendix for transcription key). Methodologically the project falls within the U.K.-based framework of Linguistic Ethnography (LE) (Blackledge and Creese 2009; Blommaert and Rampton 2011; Creese and Blackledge 2011; Rampton 2006; Rampton et al. 2007) which shares with US-based Linguistic Anthropology the assumptions that language and social life are mutually shaping, and language is social and communicative action in the organization of culture (Creese 2008:229). Meaning is more than the “expression of ideas” and the uncovering of other meaning dimensions—stances, identities, indexicalities, and so forth—depends on a fine-grained analysis of verbal and nonverbal actions in situated encounters as well as on an understanding of the larger social context: “Meaning takes shape within specific social relations, interactional histories and institutional regimes, produced and construed by agents with expectations and repertoires that have to be grasped ethnographically” (Rampton 2007:585). In this paper ethnography and linguistic micro-analysis of situated interactions are combined in order to address such issues.

The principal differences between LE and LA are mostly tendencies in orientation. LE is deeply indebted to Hymes' ethnography of communication (Hymes 1968, 1972), and other sources of inspiration include Gumperz' interactional sociolinguistics (Gumperz 1982, 1992), and Silverstein's work on indexicality (Silverstein 1993, 2003). Yet, LE has emerged from U.K. linguistic traditions (Applied Linguistics, Discourse Analysis, New Literacy Studies, Interactional Sociolinguistics, etc.) rather than from anthropology. Therefore language rather than culture is the principal point of analytic entry. LE also has more of an inside-outwards perspective (Rampton 2007) as it often takes issue with (differential treatment) in institutional settings and culturally complex milieus in (U.K. and) Europe rather than with the “exotic” other.2 This present study follows in the same footsteps by looking at themes such as asymmetry, indexicality, and morality in food encounters as addressed most forcefully to ethnic minority children. In addition, the discussion of how semiotic resources other than language are re-interpreted linguistically in a new context Blommaert 2008) situates this analysis within studies on globalization processes (e.g., Blommaert 2010).

The setting

The main location of the fieldwork is a city school in Copenhagen, Denmark. The school is located in a former working class neighborhood, now characterized by great ethnic diversity and a socioeconomically diverse group of majority Danes. Ethnic minorities are mainly within the low-income range. The class in focus had 22 students, all between 5 and 7 years old. The children came from a range of different ethno-linguistic backgrounds: Danish (7 children), Pakistani (Urdu; 2 children), Somali (2 children), Turkish (Turkish and Kurdish; 4 children), Icelandic (1 child), Chinese (Mandarin; 1 child, half Chinese, half Danish), Moroccan (Arabic; 2 children), and Iraqi (Arabic; 1 child). All the children with a non-European background came from socioeconomically under-privileged families as did one of the majority Danish children. The rest of the majority Danish children came from working class or academic families.

Two female teachers were in charge of the class. Both were trained as preschool or nursery school teachers, they were of majority Danish background and in their late thirties. The focal teacher in the presented excerpts is Louise.3 She had 8 years of experience as a grade 0 teacher and had completed a qualifying course as well as a course on intercultural education and second language acquisition. The other teacher had two years of experience in grade 0 and no supplementary courses or training in teaching, intercultural education or second language acquisition.

Health, lunch-hour and rye bread

The issue of health (Danish: sundhed) was very important in the classroom studied as indeed in the entire school. The principal had selected health as a general focus area, and he approached it almost exclusively as a question of food choice. He had received economic support from the local community council to finance a canteen (or a “food school”madskole) where the older classes took turns cooking under the guidance of professional cooks, and the rest of the children could buy these home-cooked meals. During an interview the principal said that many of the students did not get the “proper, right” (rigtige) food at home and that this negatively affected their learning. To him the food school therefore represented an investment in children's general state of health and it was clearly a compensatory measure. In addition, the principal assumed that the general societal focus on health and the availability of home-cooked, “healthy food” would be popular among what he (in translation) termed “resource strong” families (ressourcestærke familier), that is white or majority Danish families. The food school was, thus, also a strategy to ensure the further recruitment of a student body that he saw as attractive. All teachers had been informed about the general focus on health but no special measures were taken in order to ensure a homogeneous approach. In the class studied Louise claimed (in an interview) that she basically continued her usual approach to children's lunch-boxes but that the new strategic and general focus encouraged her to put even more emphasis and rigor in the work with food and health. I never asked her how she actually understood the concept of health but in class she often pointed out that rye bread was the best thing to eat for lunch—and oats for breakfast4 (Karrebæk in press). Again, in this classroom as elsewhere, the issue of health was predominantly invoked in relation to food practices; exercise was only included as part of an orientation to a healthy life-style at special occasions, such as during the “Health Week” (Sundhedsugen) where the children ran around the block every morning. The issue of health was particularly pertinent at lunch. Lunch was a fairly informal activity; the children chatted while eating and when eating in the classroom, teachers would put on music, story CDs or read for the children. The organization of lunch changed over the year. In four of the five excerpts presented in the following it took place in the class-room, in one it was situated in the canteen. In all of the excerpts however the children consumed food brought from home.

Children's lunch-boxes usually contained a selection of raw fruit and vegetables (carrots, tomatoes, cucumber, apple, grapes) as well as open sandwiches on rye bread with a topping such as cheese, liver pâté, salami, mackerel in tomato sauce, or even chocolate. Some children brought a hardboiled egg, a chicken drumstick, slices of bacon, or leftovers from dinner (lasagne, fruit salad, rice and chicken). Some children brought both rye bread and white bread, and lunch-box contents varied from only one sandwich, and nothing more, to a variety of small plastic containers with different items in addition to sandwiches, rice crackers, and fruits. In general, teachers did not comment on whether the children finished all of their food or in which order they consumed it. There were, however, notable exceptions to this. Some items were treated as entirely inappropriate, for example, sweets, fruit yoghurts and fruit juice, and children were not allowed to consume them at all. Food items other than rye bread, fruit and raw vegetables had an ambiguous status, and if children brought rye bread as well as other foods—white bread, pizza, ethnic dishes, a cookie—they would be instructed to finish the rye bread before eating these. In fact, they were encouraged not to eat the other items as the teachers said, for instance, “see if you are still hungry afterwards.” White bread was both much discouraged and allowed: children were allowed to eat it—after having received a reprimand—if they did not have any rye bread, or if they had already consumed some “sufficient” quantity of rye bread.

Modan (2001) reports that Jewish Americans use “whole wheat” and “rye” to refer to themselves, as they eat darker varieties of bread in contrast to “white” Americans who consume white bread. In the Danish context rye bread also constitutes a particularly noteworthy food item and it was a key focus for food discourse in this school. Danish food historians, nutritional specialists and chefs talk about rye bread as an integral part of “our” food culture (for instance, the Danish Ministry of Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries5, Meyer and Boyhus 2002; Plum 2010) and they claim that “we” can teach “other people” new and healthier food habits when we take into account “our” food cultural traditions (Olsen et al., 2011)6. Rye bread is regarded as extremely healthy. Traditionally it is made out of rye flour, rye kernels, salt, and water. Denmark lies just north of the climate zone of wheat breeding, and before the introduction of more refined varieties of wheat, there were mainly grown rye, barley and oat (Boyhus 2005; Meyer and Boyhus 2002). Today rye bread is primarily eaten at lunch and only occasionally at other meals, and even here consumption is reported to be declining, with white wheat bread taking its place. This is in itself treated as indexical of a (alleged) decline of traditional values as well as of the nation's general state of health (Hjerteforeningen 2006). Despite the focus on the health and cultural value of rye bread, parents often say that their children do not like it; yet official health authorities emphasize that it is important they learn to appreciate it (Hjerteforeningen 2006). Also, on a more anecdotal level, immigrants and visitors to Denmark are almost never familiar with rye bread, and although they may find it exotic, few prefer it to white bread.

As already suggested in the school under study, rye bread was a significant theme, and it was closely indexed to the categories of “healthy” and “unhealthy.” The superior value of rye bread was emphasized in the classroom on a daily basis when teachers inspected children's lunch-boxes and evaluated what they ate. Teachers also frequently asked parents to provide the children with rye bread rather than white bread; here (in translation) from a newsletter: “And a reminder: Remember the rye bread in the lunch-boxes!!!” (22/1). On another occasion the teacher announced with great enthusiasm to the class that the day before “we all brought rye bread.” She was so surprised and content that she put up a message on the electronic bulletin board to inform parents.

Whether children did or did not bring rye bread was related to cultural and ethnic background. Almost all the majority Danish children brought rye bread in addition to other food items. Teachers were extremely attentive to and critical about the lunch-boxes of several of the minority children, but again, the focus was primarily on the inclusion of rye bread and not other potential food health issues. In contrast, majority children's lunch-boxes were only rarely scrutinized. One of these rare occasions was reported to me by a majority parent who had been informed in the report book that her daughter's lunch-box had been inappropriate in some way. While she told me that she found the focus on lunch-boxes exaggerated, she conformed to the expressed norm from that point on. Ironically, a different majority girl (Mathilde) never brought rye bread but only light Swedish style crisp bread because, as she announced to Merve (girl, Turkish background) in December, she hated rye bread: “it tastes so bad” (det smager så dårligt). Thus, in spite of her distaste of the bread variety, she was still compelled to define her choices with reference to rye bread as an unmarked norm. The teachers never commented on Mathilde's rye bread-lacking lunch-box, and I doubt that they noticed it. The teachers never made it into an issue either that a boy of ethnic majority background never brought—or even consumed (according to him)—any fruits or vegetables.

A few minority families seemed to ignore the dominant food ideology. The teachers kept rummaging through these children's bags and lunch-boxes and telling the children that this food was unhealthy (and that they “pitied” them); they called their parents and wrote in their report books, but little did it change. When I asked Louise whether she thought that her focus on rye bread could deteriorate relations with some of the children's families, because they did not wish to conform to the food norms she propagated, she said that such families were difficult to co-operate with in general. Lunch-box problems were, thus, associated with more general attitudinal problems.

The children were also aware of the significance of food norms. A majority boy burst into tears one day when he discovered a slice of a soft white bread in his lunch-box, and he refused to eat it. I never asked the children what they thought about rye bread but by the end of the year several of the minority children secretly told me that they did not like it at all. I occasionally heard children discuss the issue of rye bread among themselves. Interestingly, while they rarely applied the adjective “healthy” (sund) like their teachers, they sometimes commented that white bread contained fat. As fat was unanimously agreed to be bad, this was an indirect reference to health. Rye bread was used as an asset when comparing lunch-boxes and it was mentioned as an obligatory lunch-box item in warnings to other children who had brought white bread.

In all, in spite of the fact that to my knowledge, rye bread was never explicitly emphasized as indexical of being Danish in this classroom, I find it safe to say that it was generally indexical of traditional values, of educational potential, and of national and ethnic affiliation. It is thus a second order indexicality in Silverstein's (2003) terminology.


This section illustrates the more general ethnographic observations in the previous section with detailed transcriptions and analysis of the interactional treatment of eating practices in the grade 0 classroom. The primary focus is on the issue of rye bread in contrast to white bread as a lunch-box content.

Lunch with Merve, Özlem, Elias and Shabana

First, I present an example from April 2010, eight months into the school year. The canteen has just opened, and at the table we find Merve (Turkish background), Özlem (Turkish background), Shabana (Pakistani background), Elias (Pakistani background) and Bilal (Moroccan background) who have all brought home-packed lunches. The teacher Louise's plate is at the end of the table. The excerpt begins five minutes after the children have opened their lunch-boxes, and two conversations run in parallel: one between Elias and Shabana, and one between Merve and Özlem. I have attempted to represent this in the transcript. Bilal remains silent. Shabana has only been in the classroom for a couple of months and it is Özlem's first or second day. When Özlem unwraps her pita bread, she is therefore unaware of lunch-box norms—but not for long! Merve redirects Özlem's focus from the teasing routine she was engaged in with Bilal about the food.

Excerpt 1: You can't bring white bread to school

April, video-recording

Participants: Özlem, Elias, Merve, Bilal, Shabana, Louise

inline image

There are several remarkable features in the excerpt, but most importantly, the peer group discussion reveals a strong norm about lunch-boxes. Both Shabana and Merve orient to this norm, and they do it by pointing out that Elias' and Özlem's lunch-boxes do not live up to it (lines 01–05). Second, Özlem and Elias react very differently to the information. Although it is difficult to hear exactly what Elias says, it is clear that he contradicts Shabana's interpretation of food norms. As for Özlem, she seems puzzled. Her repetition of “white bread?” (line 08), with a strong rising-falling intonation, functions as a repair and underlines the impression of surprise. Apparently she needs to be sure that she understood Merve correctly. Merve confirms. Özlem says that she did not know (line 13), and after a short silence and in a very low voice she asks the rather reasonable question “why can't you do that?” (lines 15–16). Interestingly, this is the only time I ever heard this question voiced, although many of the children must have wondered about the rationale behind the animosity to white bread. Merve never answers because Louise arrives, and I return to Louise's response in the following.

Lunch with Zaki

What Özlem learnt about the relation between white bread and rye bread in April had actually been on the daily agenda for the entire school year. I will now show excerpts from some of the socializing encounters where the teacher presents this rye bread norm. First, we are going to see how the teacher treats rye bread as obligatory lunch-box content. The recording is from October 2009 (2 months into the school year) where we meet Zaki, a boy of Somali descent. The entire sequence lasts about 12 minutes, and I present two rather detailed transcripts in order to illustrate the semiotically rich context of food socialization. Lunch-hour has just started, and Zaki has taken out a long item wrapped in foil from his lunch-box. He exploits the potential of the wrapped food item as a play microphone (miming to the background music) and shows himself to be very happy with it. He then slowly unwraps it and discovers an Arabic type of flat bread rolled around a sausage. This also seems to please him and eventually he lifts the wrap to take the first bite.

Excerpt 2: Zaki's wrap, 1: What's in your lunch-box today?

Participants: Zaki (child, boy), Louise (teacher)

October, video-recording

15:35 minutes into the recording

01 Lou:Zaki?
02Zaki looks at Louise.
03 Lou:hvad har du med i madpakke i dag?
What's in your lunch-box today?
04Zaki looks into his lunch-box while holding his sausage wrap.
05 Zaki:jeg ha:r xx (brød) (.) jeg ha1:r 2den brød
I ha:ve xx (bread) (.) I ha1:ve 2that bread, ((list intonation; 1lifts his eyes and looks at the teacher; 2takes up a round item wrapped in foil and shows it to the teacher.))
06 Lou:har du rugbrød med Zaki?
Did you bring rye bread Zaki?
07 Zaki:mm.
aha. ((= confirmation))
08((Zaki lifts the sausage flat bread to his lips.))
09 Lou:så læg det der væk 3det er rigtig usundt ta dit rugbrød,
 Then put away that one 3it is really unhealthy take your rye bread. ((3Zaki puts the wrap into the lunch-box and takes a rye bread sandwich.))

I want to draw attention to three aspects of excerpt 2. The first concerns the meaning of bread variants, the second concerns the meaning of health, and the third the use of indirectness as a teaching method. With regard to the bread issue, the teacher constructs a minimal pair consisting of flat bread and rolls, on the one side, and rye bread, on the other. She does that in two steps. First Louise asks an open question about what Zaki has brought for lunch. Yet, she ignores his answer in which he directs the attention to a roll, and instead she does a repair by rephrasing it: “did you bring rye bread Zaki?” (line 06). Rolls and rye bread may belong to the same type of food (bread, possible lunch-box contents, or another superordinate category), but they are certainly not equally relevant as an answer to her question. Second, Louise tells Zaki to replace the wrap with his rye bread sandwich (line 09). As rye bread and wraps can fill the same slot, they emerge as a minimal pair. Now the health aspect has also been introduced as Louise explicitly characterizes the wrap as unhealthy, in a unmitigated way (line 09). She uses this to justify why Zaki should choose to eat his rye bread instead of the flat bread which suggests that health has been the important issue all along. Louise has relied on indirect teaching methods. Even the health issue is introduced somehow indirectly as she says that the wrap is unhealthy but merely implies that rye bread is healthy. The preference for healthy over unhealthy, and the moral understanding of health, is embedded as a presupposition in the teacher's discourse, and the child is enjoined to share the teacher's value system in order to become a respectable school child. Louise also uses indirectness (line 03) when she asks Zaki the open question about his lunch-box, and (line 06) when she asks if he has brought rye bread. She becomes gradually more explicit when Zaki does not take the appropriate next action: to choose the rye bread sandwich instead of the wrap. The questions in lines 03 and 06 are, in fact, contextualization cues (Gumperz 1992) intended to make Zaki reconsider his choice of food item. The cue invokes prior socialization events, as the rye bread message had been repeated on a daily basis since school start 2 months prior to the excerpt. Through a socializing procedure building on indirectness Louise gives him a second chance to demonstrate his acquaintance with classroom norms and to show himself to be a competent and respectable school child after all. When Zaki fails to do so, Louise explicitly instructs him to make the appropriate food choice and Zaki complies. The excerpt thereby shows that health is an important topic, and that two months into the school year the children are supposed to be aware of and orient to the superior qualities of rye bread in contrast to white bread.

After this exchange, Zaki spends a considerable amount of time unwrapping the rye bread sandwich. Then he starts eating—but it goes extremely slowly. He takes small bites and chews each one carefully. Although this might be seen as a case of passive resistance to the teacher's directions, the teacher does not seem to be looking at Zaki, and Zaki does not look in her direction either. About eight minutes after the interaction Zaki takes up the wrap from the lunch-box, takes a bite—and then very quickly puts it back. He returns to his rye bread sandwich, but doesn't actually eat any of it, and approximately 9 minutes after his first interaction with the teacher he summons her.

Excerpt 2: Zaki's wrap, 2: “Take off the topping”

24:53 minutes into the recording

01 Zaki:°Louise°. ((while looking at the teacher))
02Zaki lifts his left hand discretely over his head and looks towards the teacher.
However the teacher does not acknowledge his call for attention and his arm sinks doing a half circle over his head, then he lowers it just keeping the index raised and the other fingers bend.
03The teacher is talking to another child for a few minutes.
04Again Zaki raises his hand, this time very fast.
05 Zaki:1°jeg ka ik li den°.
1°I don't like it°. ((1points to the sandwich.))
06 Lou:så ta pålægget af Zaki ik oss.
 then take off the topping okay.

In Excerpt 2, it seems likely that Zaki wants to get permission not to eat his rye bread sandwich. This interpretation is supported by his unenthusiastic handling of the food item. It is also supported by the fact that he does not look particularly comfortable with the communicative endeavor that he initiates. His first bids for attention are very discreet; when he finally gets to speak, he keeps his voice very low, and never explicitly tells the teacher what he wants from her. Zaki's project is, in fact, socially dangerous since by admitting that he does not like the rye bread, Zaki disaligns with classroom norms. The teacher however orients to Zaki's problem as a question of the topping rather than the bread, maybe in order to save face for Zaki; not liking the topping is not unacceptable but not liking the bread is, and he is not excused from eating it. A couple of minutes after Excerpt 2 Zaki chooses to put down the rye bread sandwich in the lunch-box and—with signs of great pleasure—grabs the sausage wrap again. Louise quickly returns to him and calls him to order. Zaki is not allowed to eat his sausage roll; it is unhealthy, she tells him.

Lunch with Muna and Fadime

The children's awareness of food norms made some of them rather sensitive with regard to food issues. In focus of Excerpt 4 (6 months into the school year) are the two girls Fadime (Turkish-Kurdish background) and Muna (Somali background) who share a table along with two boys who stay silent. The children have just been given permission to eat. Fadime has unwrapped a white roll with cheese which she now hides under the table while gazing in the direction of the teachers' desk.

Excerpt 4, “you are kidding me!”

Participants: Fadime (child, girl), Muna (child, girl), Louise (teacher)

February, video-recording

01 Fad:jeg fik det her med.
I was given this.
02 Lou:hvorfor har du ik rugbrød?
why don't you have rye bread?
03Louise starts looking into Fadime's lunch-box.
04 Lou:1det var godt nok usundt det her Fadime (.) hold: da op.
1that is really unhealthy this Fadime (.) you're kidding me. ((1still searching inside Fadime's lunch-box))
05(2 seconds)
06 Lou:må jeg lige låne din kontaktbog?
can I borrow your report book?
07Fadime gets up in order to take the report book, Louise goes to the other side of the classroom while looking at the children eating
MUNA HAS BROUGHT THE SAME. ((addresses the teacher))
09Louise returns to their table
10 Lou:hvor er dit rugbrød henne?
where is your rye bread? ((addresses Muna))
11Louise looks into Muna's lunch-box where she finds a rye bread sandwich.
12 Mun:jeg ka ik li den.
I don't like it.
13 Lou:det passer ik det har du fået mange gange, (0.5) værsgo, (0.5) det der det usundt.
That's not true you have had that many times, (0.5) here you are, (0.5) that one is unhealthy.
14Muna starts unwrapping the rye bread sandwich.

Fadime's behavior is noticeable, and by trying to hide her food she instead catches the teacher's attention. The teacher walks towards the girls' table, but even before she has reached it, Fadime says that “this” is what she was given (line 01); “this” refers to her white roll. Fadime thereby demonstrates that she is aware that there are classroom norms of appropriate lunch items and that she does not conform to them. Louise starts looking into Fadime's lunch-box and when she asks Fadime why she does not have any rye bread, Louise explicitly establishes rye bread as a relevant issue. She does more than that, though: Louise constructs the bringing of rye bread as the norm that Fadime is not matching, and by asking for an explanation she makes Fadime accountable for the transgression of this norm. It is probably not easy for Fadime to present an account. Most children are not much involved in the making of their lunches and are unaware of the reasons why or why not some food items turn up in them.7 As an experienced kindergarten teacher Louise has to know this, and her turn has to be read as another example of linguistic indirection as a socialization tool; in this case, her question clearly functions as a reprimand (“you were wrong in not bringing rye bread”). Louise then proceeds to qualify the lunch-box as “really unhealthy,” and finally, in a low and serious-sounding voice, Louise asks for Fadime's report book. The report book is only used for messages to parents that the teachers find so urgent and important that they must be documented in writing. Most often they concern offenses to classroom norms. This suggests that Fadime's lunch-box represents a moral transgression both in terms of its (lack of) rye bread (and therefore of nutritional value) and because it is a sign of a negative or indifferent attitude to school norms. Who is responsible for this transgression is never mentioned explicitly, but blame nevertheless permeates the situation. Fadime and her parents should know the expectations, and they should take responsibility for living up to them; this is embedded as an implicature in Louise's asking for the report. Fadime finds the report book in her bag and simultaneously informs Louise that the other girl at the table, Muna, has brought something similar. In this way Fadime can share her uncomfortable position, guilt and shame with Muna. Louise succeeds in finding a rye bread sandwich in Muna's lunch-box but Muna does not want to eat it; she argues that she does not like it. By complaining she tries to reject the socialization process (see Anving and Sellerberg, 2010) but Muna's complaint is not accepted. She is told that the other food item (a white roll) is unhealthy so she has to eat her rye bread. Silently Muna starts to unwrap the sandwich.

Excerpts 1–4 make relevant (at least) three important issues with regard to health and lunch. First, rye bread is seen an essential part of lunch; white bread is unhealthy and cannot substitute for rye bread. The value of rye bread is never questioned, and neither is the (lack of) nutritional value of other food items. Secondly what you bring for lunch is a moral as well as nutritional issue. Health is treated as super-ordinate to other possibly relevant concerns such as personal taste, preferences, and cultural background, and what constitutes healthy food choices is not open for discussion as health is a moral category. Actually, when Özlem in Excerpt 1 asks Merve why she should not eat white bread, she receives this as an explanation from Louise: It is because: “when you attend this school you have to bring rye bread. (.) then you become really smart (.) and really strong.” (når man går på denne her skole ska man nemlig ha rugbrød med. (.) så blir man rigtig klog (.) og rigtig stærk.). The third issue concerns the teacher's stance regarding the cultural background of the children. Children's parents rather than the children themselves are responsible for the content of lunch-boxes. By verbalizing lunch-box content as unhealthy the teacher demonstrates that the children's caretakers do not master Danish norms of good parenthood, and in other places the teachers demonstrate pity for children when they encounter “unhealthy” lunch-boxes. This is often phrased as: “I feel so sorry for you / I pity you” (det var rigtig synd for dig)8. By extension, the teachers demonstrate a lack of approval of and respect for the food practices in children's homes. As food culture is a significant part of cultural practices in general, this is a significant stance. This hardly ever happened with majority children, and the contrast between the attitudes to the two groups of children is striking. The children are put in a position of having to accept the teachers' judgments, because they are not able to challenge the teachers' privileged position to define right and wrong, healthy and unhealthy, appropriate and inappropriate, moral and immoral lunch-box items. Their compliance in the school context thus forces them to suspend or reject the home values that they bring along, materialized in the lunch-box. In school the lunch-box becomes a semiotic object that teachers treat as indexing home and home cultural food values without acknowledging its connected emotional, symbolic and cultural importance. It is much more important for teachers to make children's lunch-boxes conform to a specific cultural norm, argued for in terms of health.

Lunch with Selma

It is impossible to compare directly food socialization sequences with minority and majority children as protagonists. Majority Danish children almost always brought rye bread, and they ate it without complaints. However, appropriateness related to food occasions also comprises other dimensions than health and rye bread. As Ochs et al. (1996) noted, the order of consumption of different food items is moralized. Specifically, it is common that “unhealthy” items are allotted a recognized place only in the last sequential slot of the meal, whereas the main part of the meal is supposed to be “healthy.” Whether a particular food item is treated as acceptable or not may thereby depend on sequential position rather than intrinsic qualities. This is illustrated in Excerpt 5, where a Danish majority girl Selma has just discovered a cookie in her lunch-box:

Excerpt 5: “I eat it last”

Participants: Selma (child, girl), Louise (teacher)

December, audio-recording

01 Selma:åhr! Louise: (.) se hvad de har givet mig med?
oh! Louise: (.) look what they have given me?
02 Lou:er det en dessert?
is it a dessert?
03 Selma:ja den spiser jeg til sidst.
yes I will eat it last.
04 Lou:jah.

Selma has opened her lunch-box only to discover that it contains a problematic item, and she clearly expresses that she is not at ease with this. Selma summons the teacher in order to tell her what “they” (probably her parents) have provided her with, and by doing this Selma performs several strategically well-placed actions at once: she shows herself to be aware of the lunch-box classroom norms, she disaligns with her parents who apparently are not aware of these norms, and she demonstrates that she takes responsibility of complying with norms. At the same time she positions the teacher as a judge over the destiny of the transgressive food item. The teacher responds in a question format by suggesting that the item is a dessert. As dessert is a normal and respectable part of the meal, the teacher thereby transforms transgression into normality. The new option presents Selma with the opportunity of saving both her own and her parents' face and this is exactly what she does. Selma agrees that the item constitutes a dessert and she explicitly demonstrates her understanding of dessert as something that comes last in the meal. Louise acknowledges Selma's answer and simultaneously shows her agreement with Selma's understanding of dessert. At the same time Louise authorizes Selma to eat the problematic item—although as the last part of the lunch. So through this negotiation Selma and Louise co-construct a potentially transgressive food item as “dessert.” Thereby, they transform it from an inappropriate to an appropriate lunch-time item.

If we compare excerpt 5 to excerpts 1–4 we find that all of them illustrate a situation in which an item that was presumably intended by the parents who prepared the lunch to be good or pleasurable for the child becomes problematic when it is transferred from home to the new (school) context (in Blommaert's terms, its indexicalities shift). Thereby the food item is turned into a source of worry rather than one of delight for the child. However, only Selma is allowed to eat the problematic food item. Another difference concerns the attitudes of the children in teacher-child socializing encounters. Although the minority children demonstrate awareness of school norms, many of them do not orient to these norms as indisputable. They end up abiding to them, but initially they object, and they do not demonstrate that they take responsibility for complying with them. Selma on the other hand demonstrates personal acceptance of norms. This difference may be consequential for the outcome of the interactions. Here, we see the importance—and the intertwining—of food/cultural and discursive norms and practices: it is Selma's discursive acknowledgment of food norms (and therefore, the dominant institutional/cultural agenda) that makes it possible for a negotiation of practice (eating the problematic item) to take place. Here, socialization through language and socialization to language are working hand in hand.


In this article I have analyzed teachers' and children's situated negotiations of categorizations of specific food items and food practices. According to anthropological research, people who consume the same type of food show themselves to belong to the same group. Lunch in the grade 0 classroom validates this conclusion. Difference and division were prevalent, but teachers constructed belonging as eating the same kinds of—healthy—foods, and they transformed the lunch-box into a school domain. Children who did not bring the appropriate food items were excluded from the group of respectable students. I mentioned to both the principal and the teachers that the children sometimes found themselves in difficult positions when their parents did not provide them with the food expected by the school. Although they acknowledged this, the principal and the teacher Louise both said that children can be very efficient, even more efficient than teachers, in resocializing parents into new and better practices.

It was striking that the children who were most affected by the strong food ideology, and equally strong pedagogical actions, were of minority background. In this classroom many ethnic minority students' habitual choices differed from those considered respectable in the dominant understanding of healthy food practices. Teachers however did not recognize that categories of healthy or good food are culturally contingent. Moreover, the understanding of healthy food was materialized in rye bread, a very culture-specific food item. Selma's cookie was not treated as inappropriate whereas Zaki's white bread, Fadime's and Elias' rolls were treated as threats to the social order. Minority children's food choices often led to marginalization and the children were made accountable for their parents' actions which they were made to understand were wrong. This case is thereby strikingly similar to the Canadian resocialization food programs (Iacovetta, 2006) as well as to Allison's (2008) account from a Japanese kindergarten. Also, there seems to be an additional aspect to the food ideology. It was a traditional Danish food item—rye bread—that carried the heaviest load of signaling “doing being healthy”; at the same time this item also signified the children's very acceptance of majority norms. They ate rye bread; thereby food made citizenship and nationality tangible and concrete (cf. Bonnekessen, 2010; Daniel, 2006; Golden 2005): rye bread became indexical of integration into Danish society. Whereas majority Danes were born into the cultural and national membership, newcomers, immigrants, were not and they had to prove their wish to participate. The lack of rye bread was interpreted as a particular stance against the Danish majority norms, and rye bread-less lunch-boxes became indexical of unintegrated minority families as teachers did not attribute good faith to parents.

In conclusion, during the first year of compulsory school teachers' hostile approach to certain lunch-boxes made school life even less promising for a group of children who were already in a marginal position. Schools are important sites of construction and communication—or even reproduction (Bourdieu and Passeron, 1977)—of discourses and values recognized by dominant forces in society. They may also be seen as sites of the acquisition of persons by culturally fabricated disabilities (Varenne and McDermott, 1995). Different motivations—national belonging, health, or other—may be used to authorize trespassing on the child's private sphere (Lupton, 1996): the body. Salazar (2007:155) remarks that there is significant education research documenting the cross-cultural conflicts that ethnic minority children experience in regular classrooms. In contrast, the school cafeteria has been largely ignored. We have now seen that lunch in classrooms is a critical space where the same cultural issues manifest themselves through the medium of food and eating. Food, like language, is used to create both similarity and difference.


  • 1

    A few parents did not wish to be interviewed but all children were allowed to participate.

  • 2

    For more in-depth comparisons between LE and LA, see Creese (2008), Rampton (2007).

  • 3

    As all other names, Louise is a pseudonym.

  • 4

    During “Health Week” the children made place mats illustrating healthy and unhealthy food. Although healthy food was never defined either, it was repeatedly pointed out that white bread belonged to the unhealthy category, as did fruit juice and sausages (Karrebæk 2011).

  • 5

  • 6

    See for instance, homepage of a famous Danish chef and food entrepreneur.

  • 7

    It is quite likely that Fadime is the only member of the family who (should) consume rye bread. Therefore the caregiver may not always remember to buy it or the bread may turn moldy before it is finished. Fadime may also have told her mother that she does not like rye bread. At least she reveals this to the author around the time of the recording of this sequence.

  • 8

    Louise even said in an interview that this was a formulation she used in order to make children aware of the poor quality of their lunch-boxes. In the following quote from an interview she is voicing an imagined child who reports to his or her parents Louise's reactions upon seeing the lunch-box: “Louise said today did you really bring toast I feel so sorry for you then you have to make do with that today.” (Louise sagde i dag har du nu toastbrød med det er synd for dig så må du nøjes med det i dag). Notice that the literal translation of the Danish word synd is “sin.”


  • 1

    For example, Jamie Oliver's highly mediatized School Dinner program in Australia and the U.K.


Transcription standard

ha:rprolongued sound
xxuninterpretable word
xxxuninterpretable sequence, more than one word
(brød)uncertain hearing
↑whitehigh pitch
↓breadlow pitch
MUNA HAS THE SAME.shouting / loud voice
jeg ha1:r den brød ((1lifts his eyes and looks at the teacher))
Speaker performs a lifting of his eyes in the middle of uttering the word har