Recent PhD recipient, Merin Oleschuk will begin a tenure-track Assistant Professor position in Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Merin graduated on January 10, 2020. Her dissertation is entitled, Domestic Foodwork in Value and Practice: A Study of Food, Inequality and Health in Family Life and she completed it under the supervision of Josée Johnston, Shyon Baumann and Melissa Milkie. Her dissertation abstract is as follows:
This dissertation explores home-cooked family meals – the ideals and expectations around them, as well as how they are navigated by parents in diverse social positions. This exploration assesses how discourses and practices surrounding family foodwork reflect and shape inequalities in a variety of realms including gendered labour, economic disparities, health outcomes and consumer politics. It utilizes diverse methods including a discourse and content analysis of North American news media, as well as qualitative interviews, cooking observations and food recall conversations with parents in the Greater Toronto Area who are primary cooks in their families. These varied methods facilitate investigation into how home cooking is publicly presented, automatically understood, and emotionally experienced by parents from diverse backgrounds. The dissertation explores these ends in three analytically distinct chapters, offering three key insights. First, the media analysis reveals that public discourse promotes a complex allocation of responsibility for family meals that recognizes multiple structural conditions constraining meals (such as unhealthy food environments and inflated normative standards), yet assigns responsibility for resolving them to individuals (i.e. parents should work harder to combat these constraints and cook more at home). These findings apply to family meals but can also be extended to consider responsibility for social problems within neoliberalism more broadly. Second, interview analysis identifies the ubiquity of a cultural schema of “cooking by our mother’s side”: an automatic, semi-conscious understanding of learning to cook that privileges culinary knowledge acquired during childhood through the social reproductive work of mothers. Analysis of this schema reveals its role in reproducing gendered inequalities and obscuring diversity in food learning, especially by overemphasizing the importance of childhood and masking learning later in life. Third, I qualitatively analyze how socio-economic disadvantage (alongside its intersections with gender and race/ethnicity) negatively impacts the emotional experience of foodwork but does not necessarily predict cooking pleasure. In identifying and exploring five conditions of cooking pleasure, I examine how certain conditions can operate relatively independently from class and facilitate cooking enjoyment for low-income groups. Collectively, the dissertation advances scholarly understanding of the ideals, meanings and emotions encompassing family foodwork, their embeddedness with social inequalities, as well as opportunities for resistance and social change.
Merin's new position is part of a cluster hire in food security within the University's College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. She looks forward to working alongside other scholars across disciplines working to improve human and environmental health through the food system. While at Illinois, she plans to continue to develop her research around domestic food labour and consumption while expanding her research programme addressing issues of food insecurity around it. She will teach classes in the areas of food, gender and qualitative methods. Merin currently holds a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Guelph, working on the GenEQ: Advancing the Status of Women at the University of Guelph Initiative in the Provost's Office.