Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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"What's in a Lunchbox?": A Story About New Zealand Ideals of Health, Social Class and Ethnicity Told Through Sandwiches and the Children Who Eat Them

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posted on 2021-11-12, 19:12 authored by Rey Vasquez, Carla

Through an ethnographic investigation of school lunchboxes, this thesis explores if and how difference and Otherness is understood by children. In three urban New Zealand primary schools I examine how children construct, affirm and/or challenge social inequalities and issues of inclusion by looking at the contents, concepts, narratives and activities related to the consumption and sharing of their lunch food. Literature dedicated to social class (Bourdieu, 1984) and identity (Rikoon, 1982; Stern, 1977) has documented the way in which food is creatively used to reaffirm unity and belonging within minority groups (Camp, 1979; Abrahams & Kalcik, 1978). In contrast to this approach, I review the role of food as a ‘safe space’ (Mercon, 2008: 5) where diversity may be allowed to symbolically exist for the purpose of affirming the unity of the nation state, while ultimately muffling deeper social differences. The thesis thus questions the assumption that food, identity and social cohesion are conceptually linked. My overall argument centres on the “humble” sandwich, which I claim is constructed as the core, dominant component of the lunchbox, mutually constituting nutritional, social class and ethnic tropes, practices and values. I assess the discourses, behaviours and symbolism that historically situates the sandwich as iconicaly or emblematically “Kiwi”, contending that via the creation of a dychotomized system (i.e. healthy, good, skinny, well-behaved, energetic, Kiwi versus junk-food, bad, fat, naughty, sick, Other) children are enculturated into the logics of work and socialized to be compliant with structures of inequality. Thus, while the sandwich appears equally accessible to all, the differences in its production can result in practices of class based distinction (Bourdieu, 1984) and ethnic exclusion (Hage, 2003). However, my analysis also reveals that children are not mere subjects of structure, but that they reproduce, challenge, mediate, and re-shape these discourses and behaviours.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

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Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Name

Master of Arts

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Social and Cultural Studies


Trundle, Catherine; El-Ojeili, Chamsy