CAMDEN — In an age-old tradition, the family meal brings relatives together to nourish the body and rekindle kindred bonds. But take a step back from the table and one realizes that there’s much more to the eye – and the stomach. Who cooks the meal? Who sets the table? Who initiates conversation? Who cleans up?
These are several of the questions being asked as students Amanda Edmondson and Amanda MacGhee currently conduct a research study, entitled Parent-child interplay in food consumption. Researched under the guidance of Cindy Dell Clark, a visiting associate professor of anthropology, the project recently earned a Dean’s Undergraduate Research Grant. The students will present their research at the Celebration of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity, to be held on Thursday, April 18, in the Campus Center’s Multi-Purpose Room.
“It’s a topic that you don’t typically think a lot about,” says Edmondson, a sociology major minoring in anthropology. “There wasn’t much research about the social aspect of the family mealtime, so we decided to get our own experience researching in the field.”
Now in its second semester, the study focuses on six families – three from lower-income areas and three from middle-income areas – and each having a child in the fourth or fifth grade. The families are observed all day on a Saturday and Saturday, encompassing breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Although they are aware that they are being observed, the families don’t know that the researchers are focusing in particular on their interactions during mealtimes. The goal, says Edmondson, is to determine the connections between parent and child during these exchanges. “I don’t remember what I was like at that age, but it was fascinating to see how a kid reacts to being around his or her family at mealtime,” says Edmondson, a resident of Haddon Township.
Among their findings, the students have discovered that mealtimes are usually unscheduled, says MacGhee, a resident of Moorestown, who is majoring in cultural anthropology. Moreover, parents typically initiate meals, while children initiate snacks.
The students have also found that the meals typically don’t contain many fruits and vegetables. In one lower-income family living in Camden, the parents encouraged their child to eat fruits and vegetables, but there wasn’t much of a selection available, says MacGhee. They were instead limited to a less-than-fresh variety found in a lone refrigerated display case at a corner store. “Where I live, you would not even be able to sell this produce,” says MacGhee, adding, “Camden is a food desert. It’s not fair what their availability of food is.”
Dell Clark praised the students for their rigorous anthropological research. “First, these students endured four months of IRB applications and revisions, then the need to meet with both campus police and a child abuse identification expert all before the research could begin,” says Dell Clark. “Every family was recruited for the research with painstaking persistence. And each student took six days out of their lives to observe children in their homes. If ever there was a marathon leading to a set of student research findings, they have run one. Anthropology is a demanding adventure, and they have been adventurers.”
Edmondson notes that the experience of working closely with the families will benefit her upon entering her career in the medical field, possibly as a patient advocate. “It helps you to understand what is happening around you, especially in terms of the socioeconomic conditions,” she says. “The more experience you have making these observations, the better you will be as a researcher.”
MacGhee echoes the sentiment, adding that they realize how fortunate they are to have been given the opportunity to conduct undergraduate research. “It’s a big deal,” says MacGhee. “It’s the experience of a lifetime to have been offered this opportunity and to have faculty members who believe in you. I will remember this for the rest of my life.”