Joining the dots – when youth and decision-makers see eye-to-eye

This blog was first published by Um So Planeta in Portuguese and can be found here.

Not so long ago, I met a government minister in person – yes, not on the television, not at the opening of an art gallery or new school or other speech-making opportunity, but face to face. I remember feeling a little bit intimidated. I remember thinking to myself: This person makes decisions, big decisions.

I was shy. I felt insignificant. There I was, standing in what I’d always thought of as an ivory tower – not for people like me – for the Government. But when I talked to the minister, I soon realised, you know what? They’re actually ok. They’re kind of nice. They’re pretty cool and supportive of what I’m trying to do as a young person.

How did I come to realise that? Through an open and honest conversation. I suddenly felt that as a youth activist, together with government, I could help create some significant change.

As part of the first ever United Nations Food Systems Summit pre-summit, youth activists of Act4Food Act4Change held an open dialogue with Member State representatives from six countries. I was overwhelmed by an intense sense of pride and nostalgia, thinking back to my first conversation with a ministerial representative. I watched my fellow youth leaders from Bangladesh, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom in discussions that have the potential to create change.

The event, titled Innovative and Youth Inclusive Food Policies: an open discussion between Member States and Young People from Act4Food Act4Change provided a platform for these very different but equally crucial stakeholder groups to discuss specific action areas identified under Actions4Change.

We heard about some of the top areas youth around the world have prioritised so far, which include: actions to make healthy and nutritious food affordable to all; those to value and promote local and indigenous food knowledge; those that improve sustainability of farming; those that ensure young people have a seat at the table at every level of decision making; those that ensure children in educational settings are provided healthy and sustainable meals; and those that change the way food is advertised to promote healthy foods instead of junk food.

The thoughtful conversations between young people and government counterparts showed each group has a role to play in ensuring the Actions4Change are implemented at country level.

The first dialogue, between Mr. Pawan Agarwal, a Special Secretary in the Government of India, and our Indian youth leader Priya Prakash, covered the critical importance of children at school eating healthy and sustainable meals, and being educated about how to eat right. Mr. Agarwal also noted that India has the world’s largest youth population – over 100 million more young people than China: “and this is a window of opportunity to leverage youth power to transform food systems in India.” Priya responded powerfully: “I think it’s the dream of every youth leader and youth activist that actually one day our voice will be heard at the government level, at the policy level, but in India I’m so proud to say that that voice has been heard… I think the conversation in India is just beginning with the youth… of course there’s a long way to go, but we have seen that if they work together there is so much impact and so much change to be had.”

Dr. Sanjo Faniran, the technical advisor to the National Convenor for Nigerian Food Systems Summit dialogues spoke with our youth leader Azeez Salawu about how important it is to create employment for young farmers and agri-preneurs. He also highlighted Nigeria’s commitment to engaging youth and using a youth lens when developing agricultural and nutritional policies Azeez confirmed that he has felt involved and engaged in national dialogues leading up to the UNFSS, which help youth coordinate with other stakeholders, for instance to see agriculture as business rather than a subsistence activity.

From Switzerland, our youth leader Marie-Claire Graf spoke with Madeleine Kaufman at the Swiss Federal Office for Agriculture, about how Switzerland promotes food systems transformation through agricultural practices and how Swiss electorates in the popular vote one month ago unfortunately rejected two sustainable agricultural related initiatives. Regarding plant-based diets, Marie-Claire noted that living as a vegan in the large city of Zurich was “super easy”, but in the countryside “It’s very challenging, and also there is almost no awareness around this topic.” Together they concluded that it is important to educate everyone about food and its impact on our planet and our health and how we can reconnect with food through agriculture.

Dr. Mosammat Nazmanara Khanum the Honourable Secretary from the Ministry of Food in Bangladesh spoke with our youth leader Dipty Chowdhury next. Dr Khanum highlighted the current state of Bangladesh’s food systems, emphasising that sustainable and universal food security was a big priority. She noted progress in hunger and undernourishment, but also recognised the terrible impacts of COVID19, which threatens to reverse large gains made in hunger, stunting, and wasting which were in steady decline over the last decades. Dipty emphasized that although she applauds the progress made, “Our Government is doing a lot for youth but we are still not part of these decision making processes in Bangladesh.”

Maureen Muketha, our youth leader from Kenya spoke about one of her passions – healthy and nutritious indigenous vegetables, which need to be made more affordable and available as part of a strategy to combat diet-related malnutrition and disease. Dr Gladys Mugambe from Kenya’s Ministry of Health agreed that Kenyans are not eating enough vegetables. She mentioned youth have helped the Kenyan government to identify gaps in marketing, labelling and packaging, and that they are in the process of investigating together to see how they can help people make more informed and healthier food choices. Maureen, who also feels strongly about education, explained, “It takes 21 days to cultivate a habit… I don’t think there’s anything impossible, it’s all about learning and understanding and appreciating.”

Mr Tom Pennington, from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the UK explained the UK government’s efforts in seeking to create a secure labour supply chain for the next generation of growers, particularly in light of the challenges from Covid-19 and the UK’s departure from the European Union. Sixteen-year-old youth leader, Dev Sharma, also highlighted the role of media. He believes that the media has been responsible for blaming individuals for unhealthy eating habits, failing to acknowledge the obesogenic environment that young people are growing up in.

While the friendly discussions were short, they were full of learnings, and we hope they mark the beginning of a long collaborative road paved with transformative food systems actions. It is abundantly clear that governments and youth must come together – they can, and they are – to help solve some of the greatest challenges facing our one world today.

The words of Tom Arnold, Ireland’s Special Envoy to the UNFSS remind us: “There has only been 6 times in last 80 years when food has risen to the top of the global political agenda. The UN Food Systems Summit recognises the central role of food to the wider agendas on health and environment”

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