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What are institutions in the Food Culture Alliance’s strategic framework?

February 24

By the Food Culture Alliance

In our strategic framework, a number of institutions have been identified: entertainment and media, family life, religion, education, sports, and other cultural institutions.

Institutions are important because they help situate us in the world. They shape our expectations about how to act and notions of right and wrong. These expectations and moral understandings operate through both formal and informal rules (customs, norms, mores). Some types of expectations, such as social norms, are important for organising, coordinating, and harmonising action within a given society. Extending these ideas of institutions and their role in society to the topic of food means that institutions can help situate food choices within the wider patterns of food consumption of a given group or society, they shape our expectations about what is acceptable to eat, when and with whom.

The Food Culture Alliance focuses on societal, shared preferences. Because institutions exist for all of society, and we are continuously, repeatedly exposed to them, institutions offer a conduit to influence how society thinks, feels, and values food. At the Food Culture Alliance, we hypothesise that food culture strategies deployed across multiple institutions can create supportive food cultures at scale.

What are the key characteristics of institutions1?

Institutions are governed by rules, which may be explicit (through regulations or guidelines), implicit (through informal customs, conventions and norms), or both.

Institutions have a structure, such as a governing body/council that specifies how the individual organisations and their agents interact with the institution and amongst themselves.

Institutions typically have a higher, value-driven purpose, which helps to organise actions. 

How do the rules and structures of these institutions relate to or influence food culture?

Entertainment & media 
  • Rules: conventions and customs on the language used and the portrayal of food on visual and audio media can shape society’s narratives, norms, symbols, and expectations around food. Entertainment industry can shape what is possible and acceptable with regards to food.
  • Structure: usually governed by a media council or national regulatory body that issues TV/radio licences, including programme ratings for different audiences (e.g., mature audiences), best practices and ethical standards. Typical organisations are media companies with various industry roles (production, editing, distribution, advertising), as well as industry associations. These organisations are typically multinational companies with local subsidiaries but can also include independently owned media houses. Stakeholders include actors, writers, directors & producers, distributors, and viewers. 

Family life 
  • Rules: status hierarchies (e.g. income earner) and gender norms are often the rules that shape family life and caregiving, especially food provisioning and meal preparation. Family life also reinforces certain food norms, such as mealtimes, meal structure, values (e.g. harmony) and beliefs (e.g. good parents provide healthy meals).  Family life is deeply affected by livelihoods including employment outside the home. In agrarian families, food and livelihoods are likely one in the same.
  • Structure: while not governed by a formal governing body, family structure includes marriage, children, and extended family. It is greatly influenced by the wider culture, as well as other institutions (e.g., education, religion). The actors involved in family institutions are nuclear and extended family members, such as grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.

  • Rules: follow moral laws, customs as set out in their own religious books, eg. the Bible or Qur’an. In some religions, there are specific dietary prescriptions, including feasting and fasting, as well as proscriptions.2 Thus, religion can shape food norms through morality, righteousness, and conformity.2 At the DGA, we are interested in organised/formal religions.
  • Structure: These formal religions have a global/regional governing council. Organisations are a religious group (e.g. church) affiliated to the beliefs and practices prescribed by the governing council. The actors are the members and religious leaders of this group.

  • Rules: school curriculum may specify how and what is taught with regards to food (e.g. biology class or home economics), and further guidelines about what schools can offer at lunch or snacks, including when, where, how, by whom lunch is served. Children’s long-term exposure to these formal rules can profoundly influence shared preferences, norms, perceptions, and narratives. 
  • Structure: the educational system is usually governed by a school board or council, which often follows government educational standards and guidelines set out by the Ministry of Education. Schools are the primary organisations, and school actors include teachers, their unions if they exist, students, and parents. 

  • Rules: catering policy can specify the type of foods and beverages served at games, where food is sold (inside/outside venue), by who, etc. Sports can shape expectations about food and enjoyment values. 
  • Structure: governing body may be national sports council global organisations (e.g., FIFA). Other actors include sports clubs, owners’ associations, players’ unions, players, coaches, etc. 

Other cultural institutions: Fashion/beauty
  • Rules (implicit): fashion and beauty can implicitly value food through their customs and conventions on model size, clothing sizes, and definitions of beauty through body size. These institutions are also closely influenced or connected to media and entertainment.
  • Structure: this could be a national association of fashion designers. Actors can include fashion designers, garment makers/suppliers, etc. 

All these institutions have their ‘higher’, value-driven purpose: to entertain, to enhance beauty, to educate, to raise strong children etc. Ultimately, at the Food Culture Alliance we want to work through institutions to serve an (additional) purpose, to shape society’s preferences towards nutritious and sustainable foods. 

1 Bellah, Robert N et al. The Good Society. Vintage Books, 1991.

2 Fieldhouse, Paul. Food and nutrition: customs and culture. Springer, 2013.

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