Though people make choices about food for every meal, the conversation usually doesn’t go deeper than “pizza or salad?” For senior Provost Fellow Michael Janusek, however, these choices are food for thought.
This summer Janusek, an economics and anthropology major, urban studies minor, and varsity track athlete, is researching connections between personal food choice and family food choice. He points out that choosing what to eat often goes beyond what is palatable.
“Many people have values about the food they eat or the food that they want to feed their children. Yet, sometimes people have to sacrifice nutritional quality in order to save time or money,” he says. “They may not have enough time or energy after work to prepare the ideal family meal they wish they could.”
Janusek will be completing 5 to 10 in-depth interviews with Chicagoans in order to provide insight into the family food provider’s personal views on food versus the food choices they make for their family. However, unlike a conventional study that begins with a hypothesis, Janusek says he is doing a “grounded theory” study, meaning he will create a hypothesis after he collects his data. That way, he says, “My participants tell me what to think.”
In addition to challenges with time and money, Janusek points out that sometimes new (and healthier) foods can be a tough sell to kids, so parents hesitate before taking a culinary gamble that may pay off. “It can be risky for a parent to spend money on a new food item they consider to be healthy, because the child may reject it, and the money is then wasted,” he says.
Ultimately, he hopes that this research can further explain why people make the food choices they do, so communities can better educate families to make beneficial choices.
“The goal of this research is to gain a broader understanding of family food choice,” he says. “Greater knowledge can hopefully allow dietitians and community centers to improve their obesity/childhood obesity programs.”
Janusek first became interested in this topic after taking a Community-based Research, Advocacy and Service in Healthcare (CRASH) class that did a study on this same topic. His faculty mentor, Dr. Mary Dominiak from the Niehoff School of Nursing and head of the Health Systems Management program, was the principal investigator for that study and he says she has helped guide his current study.
In addition to being a Provost Fellow, Janusek is a varsity track athlete who competes in distance running events. He says as an athlete, running is a part of who he is and naturally has an effect on the way he thinks. Though he believes physical fitness is an important factor in health, and can be affected by many of the same issues as food choice, his desire to study food choices comes from his family more than personal habits.
“I can think critically as a runner about how living in certain environments or situations can be detrimental to a person’s fitness or desire to exercise,” he says. “I would say this study comes more out of my interest in food and culture though. That just comes about from having an Italian grandma I guess.”
In the future, he hopes to expand even further on food choice, but for now this project fits perfectly with his studies and location.
“Food choice is complex because people have to balance time, money, personal taste, nutrition, and culture. Anthropology allows me to be familiar with qualitative research methods, while economics and urban studies help me see the broader policy issues of America’s food system,” he explains. “Because my study takes place in Chicago, I can think about all of this in a stimulating urban environment.”
This summer we will be profiling several Provost Fellows. The Provost Fellows are undergraduate students who either are interested in doing their own research with the help of a faculty member or wish to assist a faculty member with their research. They apply to the program with an outline for research, including a project description, budget, and faculty letter from the person who will be a part of the project. If they are accepted into the program, they receive a $1,000 stipend to complete their research. Their findings are then presented at the Undergraduate Research Symposium in the spring. To find out more about the program, visit the website here.