Agency and Food Scarcity in Mealtimes in Disadvantaged ECE

13 September 2023, 12noon - 2pm



School for Policy Studies Common Room 8 Priory Road Bristol BS8 1TZ

Join Emma Cooke and Bonnie Searle who will be sharing their work on interactions between children and educators in mealtime environments

The University of Bristol School for Policy Studies’ Children and Families Research Centre (CFRC) and the Brigstow Institute welcome University of Queensland early childhood researchers, Emma Cooke and Bonnie Searle, who will be sharing their work on interactions between children and educators in mealtime environments in disadvantaged neighbourhoods in Queensland, Australia.

This event is open to all academics and PGR students within the University of Bristol.

Seminar Overview

Observations were carried out in Early Childhood Education (ECEs) in very disadvantaged areas of Queensland, Australia, exploring mealtime environment and interactions between children and educators. Research shows that mealtime educator-child interactions in ECE are low in quality and tend to reduce child agency, in order to control the amount and type of food eaten. We draw upon Paulo Freire’s Banking method concept and neoliberal discourses of health to critically analyse notions of child agency and food scarcity in ECE meals. We use a crystallisation framework that combines a DRAW (Departing Radically in Academic Writing) methodology with standardised observations. Parent surveys, mealtime observations, educator interviews and InCLASS measures were conducted across 12 mealtimes. The findings demonstrate that in very disadvantaged ECEs children experience low quality educator-child interactions and low agency during mealtimes, conflict increasing across the day, which we posit may be linked to child hunger. Educators sought to control the order of food eaten and ration children’s home packed meals to last across the ECE day. The ideal ECE meal combines enough food with child agency: systemic policy action is needed to achieve this in disadvantaged ECEs.

Seminar Programme

  • 12.00-12.10pm – Welcome and introductions
  • 12.10-12.55pm – Presentation by Dr. Emma Cooke and Bonnie Searle
  • 12.55-1-25pm – Q&A
  • 1.25- 1.30pm – Closing Remarks
  • 1.25 – 2.00pm – Networking Lunch

Profile of Speakers

Dr. Emma Cooke is a sociologist and postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Queensland working in the Child Development, Education and Care Research Group at the Queensland Brain Institute and the Kids Sleep Research Group at the Child Health Research Centre. Dr Cooke works with interdisciplinary teams to research the lived experiences of children, families, educators, and clinicians – focusing on health, gender, disability, early childhood education, and inequality.

Bonnie Searle is a dietitian and researcher, completing a PhD at the Queensland Brain Institute (University of Queensland) within the Child Development, Education and Care Research Group. Bonnie has a background in clinical paediatric dietetics, supporting neurodivergent children and their families with feeding challenges. Bonnie is interested in the how of feeding and her research explores child agency, educator-child interactions and feeding practices in mealtimes in early education and care services in disadvantaged communities.


The Centre for Children and Families Research (CFRC) is one of seven research centres based in the School for Policy Studies. The Centre brings together academics and PhD students working on various aspects of childhoods and family life, especially as they relate to social or public policies from different disciplinary perspectives, notably social policy, social work, sociology, and psychology. Although the Centre is based within the School for Policy Studies, it is always looking to forge new connections and networks with others working on similar issues from across UoB. For more information visit:

Brigstow is one of the University of Bristol’s Research Institutes that started in 2015 to foster interdisciplinary and co-produced research – a growing community of curious minds from the university and beyond who want to explore and find interventions to help us live better. Brigstow mobilises, connects and resources people to consider and address the knotty problems facing individuals and societies.