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Youth involvement in our food sustainability crisis: Empowerment or Responsibility?

By Dr Maria Bryant, Lead for Sustainable and healthy food for children

I have had the pleasure of engaging with a number of young people over issues of food sustainability, climate change and food poverty over the last year and am always stirred by their passion and commitment to build a better world.

Perhaps spurred on by people such as Greta Thunberg, many young people are standing up to significant world issues and calling for major transformations to protect the planet that they will grow up in and reduce inequalities. While I am inspired by their dedication and activism, I am often left wondering “whose responsibility is this?” and “should we be advocating that its ‘up to young people to make a change’ or ‘fix our mess’?”.

Food sustainability is an area that is capturing the attention of young activists. It encompasses both issues of climate impact and food poverty. It is also accessible, given that many of the solutions relate to areas that feel ‘changeable’ even on an individual basis. We can stop using plastic and move towards a more plant-based diet. These are also subjects that can be lobbied and the voice of young people is often persuasive for politicians. And, these are important key issues that urgently need addressing. While our current global food supply is more than enough to feed the worlds population, a tenth of people go hungry every day. 30% of climate change relates to the food system, 10% of the global population live with food insecurity and this is worse in families with children.

In the UK, we have recently seen the launch of a new National Food Strategy, which proposes 14 recommendations needed to make a radical change to the food system. It is a compelling read and advocates for change spanning from reductions to intensive farming to extension of the school holiday food provision. In the time between its launch and government White paper setting out its response to support spending review decisions, there is a growing sense of the need to continue to build momentum via strengthening the evidence and through advocacy. Our own research has had to gather pace to support this work. We no longer have the time it has traditionally taken to provide evidence if we want our findings to inform decision making. We are frantically collecting implementation and impact data from school holiday activities and school programmes and analysing existing data to be ready for the White paper. But, is it this that will have the biggest chance of influence, or our work with young people to empower them to stand up for change? Activism in this area in particular was a key part of the initial pledge for additional government funding, through campaigns led by young people such as Christina Adane (the young person pioneering the petition to support families in receipt of free school meals when schools are closed) and others from the Food Foundation Young Ambassadors and the Bite Back team; built upon by celebrities including Marcus Rashford.

Hear Christina Adane, referenced above, talking on BBC Radio 4 about her beliefs that more should be done to stop the proliferation of fast food outlets on our streets and that healthier, affordable alternatives should be available.

The Food Foundation has been instrumental in delivery of the new Food Strategy. They have gathered evidence for the paper and pioneered the work involving young people. Their young ambassadors all have experience of food insecurity and have engaged with national policymakers (including the Children’s Minister, Keir Starmer, and officials from the Department for Education); sharing their experiences of food hardship during lockdown. They have worked endlessly to deliver campaigns advocating the alleviation of hunger in families, speaking to media, creating podcasts and contributing their lived experience to Rashford’s social media campaign. I have recently had the pleasure of attending a Food Foundation event aimed at empowering young people to get involved in activism and encouraging them to support priority setting for both the Food Strategy recommendations and wider global food systems. It was inspiration (and often emotional) to hear, first hand, the experiences of young people, including those with a lived experience of food insecurity and those who have been successful in their advocacy work. There was a sense of urgency and energy in the room and I have little doubt that many of these young people are going to go on to do great things, from local change to world leadership!

Learning about their lived experiences and food poverty and witnessing their positive energy has inspired me to reconsider my own research strategy and I am excited by what prospects our partnership with young people in research will bring. There is no doubt in my mind that, in addition to encouraging advocacy, it is essential that we work alongside young people and other stakeholders to support decision making in research; without which much of what we do would likely by meaningless or wasteful. Children and young people are at the heart of everything we do with our work on food within our early years and school-based settings through the CONNECTS-Food study, and the FixOurFood project. This moves beyond a simple level of involvement or engagement to a model which fosters innovation and systems transformations; from priority setting to development of new curriculum. And, throughout this process, they will be key players on our pathway to impact, including having a seat around the table with our discussion decision makers. Without them, our powers of persuasion are likely to be weaker.

I would urge everyone working in food systems or policy research to engage with young people; paving out clear objectives to support advocacy, research and/or policy development. Given the heightened engagement and passion in this area, it feels like there has never been a better time to move this agenda forward. There were increased opportunities for involving young people in improving our food systems at the UN Food systems submit in September 2021, with more leading towards COP26. However, I am left wondering if we overly place the responsibility on the heads of young people and am mindful that if we truly want to transform our food systems, we need the decision makers to step up and make a change. This is where the true responsibility lies. Empowerment of young people may play a vital role to support decisions, but lets not put the burden of responsibility on individuals who are ultimately the victims of the crisis. We need strong leaders to deliver policies that have the potential to out-live their terms in Office and revolutionise food production, trading decisions, marketing and planning policies and the welfare systems to deliver a food system in which healthy, affordable, tasty food is the default for all children and young people. Without this, the chances of us meeting our UN Global Food Sustainability goals for end malnutrition, address nutritional needs throughout the life course, and provide access to safe, healthy and sustainable food are unlikely.

FAO, I., UNICEF, WFP and WHO. 2020. In Brief to The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2021. Transforming food systems for food security, improved nutrition and affordable healthy diets for all. Rome, FAO. 2021. Available from:[.