The Better food journey
Actionable ideas towards a world eating well
by Corinna Hawkes
Today sees the release of a series of brilliantly informative papers in a UNICEF and GAIN special issue of the journal Global Food Security on children’s food systems. Focused on diets and nutrition, its core message is that food systems need to work both for and with children and adolescents. In this blog I reflect on what this means in the context recent political events.
In her inaugural speech this past Saturday as US Vice-President-Elect, Kamala Harris had a compelling message for young people: “dream with ambition, lead with conviction and see yourselves in a way others may not, simply because they’ve never seen it before.” It’s the type of leadership I’ve been amazed and inspired to see emerge in the world of food systems in recent months. Indeed, the same day as Harris’s speech, British footballer Marcus Rashford announced his campaign pushing for measures to provide food for kids in poverty had been successful – a campaign in which voices of young people proved so powerful, young people like 17-year old Christina Adane calling out the absurdity of children going without food in the world’s sixth largest economy.
The previous week I’d heard the equally powerful demands of Pierre Cooke Jr. on the World Obesity Federation webinar How are young people catalysing action on Childhood Obesity during COVID-19? Pierre, Technical Advisor at the Healthy Caribbean Coalition, One Young World Ambassador, and member of the National Youth Parliament in Barbados, had a clear ask: children deserve to be protected from unhealthy food. Kenyan Amanda Namayi, GoGettaz Lead at Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa and part of the Climate Smart Agriculture Youth Network, is another example of a powerful voice talking on the very different but equally vital issue of youth engagement in agriculture and climate change (I’ve learned plenty these past months from her excellent articles on COVID, agriculture and food in Kenya).
And then there are the youth leaders involved in the UN Food Systems Summit (as co-chairs for each of the Action Tracks). 16-yr old Janya Green is leading innovation and training in community gardens in Georgia, USA (recently winning the 2020 4-H Youth in Action Pillar Award for Agriculture). Lavetanalagi Seru, co-founder of the Alliance for Future Generations in Fiji, aims to build a “movement of young people to effectively and meaningfully engage in efforts for sustainable development”; Mai Thin Yu Mon is fighting for indigenous people’s rights in food systems at the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO); Mike Khunga from Malawi is campaigning for better nutrition as part of Scaling up Nutrition (SUN) Global Youth Leaders (I recommend their excellent advocacy toolkit co-created with youth).
These are just a few examples. And their message is clear:
It’s all a sign of new possibility for food system transformation - young people taking agency, showing up with conviction, with ambitious goals for healthier, future-proofed systems; food systems centred on serving theirs and society’s needs now and in the future.
Yet, at the same time, a series of recent studies consistently identify a rather different, troubling form of children’s agency in modern food systems. The words of a parent from Hanoi, Vietnam, say it all: “Children nowadays are very different, they will never eat what they don’t like, and we cannot force them to eat it.” The result, according to the research in low-income communities by Sigrid Wertheim-Heck and Jessica Raneri, is that while parents favour healthier meals, the priority they place on getting their kids to eat means they end up cooking “western” style fried foods, treating their kids to snacks at supermarkets on weekends.
It’s the same story in Indonesia. According to researchers at Umeå and Gadjah Mada universities, parents across the socioeconomic spectrum feel “concerned and conscious” about poor nutrition, but also “defenceless” when their kids demand “chicken nuggets, cookies and instant noodles.” Their kids become “mad,” they say, when they try to get them to eat fruits, vegetables, traditional foods. In the Ecuadorian indigenous Kichwas community, grandparents say their grandkids challenge them when faced with a healthy, traditional home-cooked meal: “can't you cook anything else”? In rural and urban settings in Malawi, research just published by Valerie Flax and colleagues shows that mums, wanting their kids to be “loved and happy,” capitulate to their requests for “Kamba puffs, fizzy drinks, sweets, biscuits, sugar cane freezes.” This despite their overall preference for healthiness. In the US, too, a study by Priya Fielding-Singh illustrates that in the context of significant financial constraints, mums give in to requests for inexpensive yet unhealthy snacks; it’s the one opportunity they have to say “yes” to their teens.
Thus emerges an apparent paradox: through their voices, their demands, young people are driving forward both positive and negative transformations in food systems. On the one hand, they are taking agency to transform food systems for the better; on the other, they are taking agency against their own parents and caregivers to demand a rather less savoury change: diets counter to their own development. Yet we should not be surprised. As Elizabeth Fox finds in her paper published in the special issue today, children are susceptible, susceptible to the way these foods are positioned as giving them what they want. In the context of (often) financial deprivation and the aspiration for better things, these foods can appear to children to meet their otherwise disregarded needs.
So we do have to listen to children and young people – but we also have to be smart enough to understand what lies beneath their demands for these easy-to-like foods, smart enough to see the more subversive forces at work that create a kind of junk food populism, nurtured at far too early an age, in countries everywhere. It can't be right that food systems are effectively pitting children against their parents.
If young people are to have the courage and confidence to be future leaders, as Kamala Harris calls them to be, if we want the “better angels to prevail” rather than the “darkest impulses” — as President-Elect Joe Biden said in his own maiden speech to Americans — we need to protect them against the forces that subvert their interests, that tout certain foods as cool and aspirational. We must set parameters about what food is right for children and what isn’t (as the paper released today by Hollis et al. does). We must give parents the space to parent the way they want to. We must listen to young people while also providing them with the acumen to understand what lies beneath. And we must give youth the platform for meaningful engagement, so they can reflect, along with adults, on the commercial environments that surround them, that sometimes engulf them, coming to their own collective conclusions about what needs to change and how.
Youth can be agents of positive change in food systems. It’s up to all of us to make sure they have a fair shot at succeeding where adults have failed.