11 Mar 2021

Women Bite Back

We welcome youth activists Christina Adane and Tasha Mhakayakora from Bite Back 2030, to celebrate International Women's Day. 

In celebration of International Women's Day, we welcomed youth activists Christina Adane and Tasha Mhakayakora from Bite Back 2030. An inspiring conversation about their fight for every child's right to health, what brands can do better to impact positive change, and how the resilience and optimism of young people can drive the movement forward. 

What made you so passionate about this powerful cause that all young people should have the right to good, healthy food? 

Christina: I was a climate activist before I joined Bite Back, and I was learning about where my food was coming from and how it affected the environment. And through that, I learned so much about the food industry and I was shocked by how difficult they've made it for me to eat healthily. It was then after working with an NGO that I applied to become a Youth Leader at Bite Back. I wanted to know more about food and what I could do to fight for my right to health. 

Tasha: I fell into Bite Back by accident. I always wanted to be a doctor. During school, I found work experience shadowing the Director of Public Health for my borough. Around the same time, Jamie Oliver was fighting for healthier school meals and the sugar tax was introduced. So, I was getting exposure to some of the health inequalities that exist in disadvantaged communities, particularly amongst young people. 

During my work experience, I learned that the environment we are living in has changed so dramatically that obesity is a normal response to an abnormal environment. People haven't become lazier since the 1980s and 1990s. I started to take notice of my food environment. Where I live, there are many fast-food shops, with very few healthy options for young people. Supermarkets have more price promotions for foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar. Disadvantaged young people are more inclined to choose unhealthy food options, because they are more readily available and more affordable. So, when I heard about Bite Back, which wanted to form a youth board to lead a movement, I had to get involved. 

Christina, you have previously mentioned the concept of food deserts, and that you came to realise you were living in one. 

Christina: When I joined Bite Back, I learnt that I'd been living in a food desert and I didn't even know it. They are areas of poverty and multiple deprivation, with little access to fresh food and high streets filled with junk food shops and highly processed HFSS products. We need to educate and equip young people with the information so that they can call out these issues. To ask why a postcode determines how well they eat? It shouldn't be the case, but it's a clear indicator of social injustice. 

Leah, you and Sam Hall have put so much into the work you did for Bite Back. Why were you so passionate about the project? 

Leah: Why wouldn't you be? When I discovered Bite Back and what it was trying to achieve, I asked myself, why is it that some people in the same postcode have completely different opportunities for healthy food than the people living down the street? For me personally, I have a real interest in health and wellness generally, and so discovering all the injustices that exist in the UK, it made me really angry. 

And learning more about the organisation and the Youth Board, and hearing their stories was enough for Sam and I to get involved in any way we can. It's become a real passion project for us. 

Christina, you took on the government to spearhead the Free School Meals campaign with Marcus Rashford, which forced the government to pledge £400m to provide free school meals to 1.7m children. Taking on the government is a major challenge for anyone, let alone a 17-year-old. What sparked it all for you and how did you prepare yourself for the challenge? 

Christina: It's almost a year ago that we were entering the eighth week of lockdown and the government had just pulled the provision of free school meals during half term. And I was so angry that the government would decide to take away vital provisions from families whose budgets are incredibly tight and when their children need it the most. It's a really stressful situation. And for those people on the poverty line, this is an essential provision. I started the petition out of shock and frustration, and it has gained nearly 400,000 signatures. 

With COVID-19 and the lockdown, the conversations around injustices in the food system have changed. 45% more people are aware of this issue, which has all stemmed from your campaign. What, in your view, can we do better and what do you hope will emerge from this situation? 

Christina: Firstly, it's important that we have transparency, and that young people understand what's going on around them. We need people to stop and listen to us. The Free School Meals campaign was successful because someone finally said, I'm a young person that has been affected by this and I want to use my platform to help other young people. So, work with us. Listen to the ways this issue affects us because it's a multi-faceted problem. 

Thanks to social media, we are constantly bombarded with junk food adverts, to the point that young people, particularly those living in food deserts, are being brainwashed. We want to break free from the oppression of the food industry. There needs to be a communication bridge between young people and those in positions of power that can make the change that we want to see. 

As an industry, we work with food brands, and we are passionate about doing the right thing for young people. When Bite Back launched you released the 'It's Not Your Fault' campaign, which exposes the role that food brands have in promoting unhealthy food choices to young people. How much accountability lies in the food industry in promoting healthier choices? 

Tasha: The 'It's Not Your Fault' launch video was our way of reaching out to people and revealing the truth about how the food system is designed. In that social experiment, we accurately predicted the item the teenagers would choose from the menu because they had all been strategically targeted by fast-food marketing to pick triple dipped chicken. It was a great way for us to kickstart our movement and open people's eyes to the way the food system influences and manipulates our food choices. 

The food system has a lot of accountability. They have normalised the consumption of junk food which has led to the obesity epidemic. Many of these companies are incentivised by profit, so it's a huge task to get businesses to change their practices and prioritise the health of young people. But through communication, we can meet in the middle and work together so they still see the profit, but not at the cost of young people's health. 

It's a collective effort. But we also need to call on the government to put more regulations in place. Currently, we're campaigning to put an end to all junk food advertising online. We can only ask for more young people to get behind us, and for companies and stakeholders to take notice and listen because we can't do it alone. 

Christina: I want to emphasise Tasha’s point and the fact that food choices are being taken away from young people. There’s a reason why companies spend millions on marketing because they understand the power of its influence. We now need to push junk food out of the way and bring healthy food into the spotlight.

We’re not trying to demonise big companies and food brands. But current practices are damaging young people, who are going to become future decision-makers. So what’s hurting us, will hurt everyone. We all need to see it as an issue for everyone.

We’re all feeling so inspired by the strength, resilience and power that young generations are having in influencing not just this particular societal issue, but other problems like racial injustice and climate change. Why do you think the youth of your generation is stepping up and taking action?

Tasha: I think young people don’t feel constrained by the way things should be done. We’re often known as the rebellious generation because we refuse to be restricted by societal expectations.

We’re also more open to new ideas, new ways of thinking that could benefit everybody and make society better. We’re very optimistic, more so than older generations. And that may be down to life experiences, or we might not understand the full complexity of the problems of today. But we believe in ourselves and our capacity to bring a better change in the world and that’s a really powerful thing. Lastly, I’m just sick and tired of social inequality. We need to think about new ways to bring about change.

Christina: Young people feel a sense of urgency. We’ve waited so long for others to act, and we’re fed up. Whether it be racism, gender equality, the climate crisis or the food industry, you have to go out and make the change you want to see. And I think Gen Z embodies this feeling so well. Tasha and I have previously collaborated with Purpose Union, which work with clients to develop meaningful social purpose strategies. They understand that for companies to be successful, they have to listen to young people and prioritise what’s important to them.

You both have achieved so much already, overcoming so many challenges in life and in your work with Bite Back, what does resilience mean to you? And has anyone inspired your journey along the way?

Christina: Resilience, for me, is the ability to just keep pushing. I’m constantly inspired by the young people around me. They have an energy and a willingness to always push and do better, which is so refreshing in young people. It’s fulfilling to collaborate with other young people who all want to work towards a better world. It gives me a lot of hope.

Tasha: Whatever challenges come at you, however difficult, resilience means that you just push through. I come from a strong line of women, but the people around me have gone through so much and shown so much resilience. My parents and my brother migrated to the UK as asylum seekers. My Dad then passed away when I was younger, and my Mum took on so much, she was amazing. She went to university only recently, whilst working and looking after three children. I’ve learnt from people around me that you just keep moving forward, whatever that looks like. One step at a time.

Christina: Gen Z have this phrase as well: ‘We move’ as if to mean we make the best of a bad situation, and we keep moving forward.

We have no doubt that we will be seeing a lot more of you both in the future. What's next for you? What’s the next big challenge?

Tasha: That’s the big question. Pre-COVID I would have given you my 5-year plan. But right now, the next challenge is the campaign spearheaded by fellow Youth Leader, Dev, which is calling on the health minister for an end to all online junk food advertising. So we encourage everyone to go to our website and sign the open letter.

Christina: The junk food marketing campaign is the priority right now. Please do sign Dev’s letter to Matt Hancock on the Bite Back website. But personally, activism is my passion and all the campaigns I’m working on, whether it be the crisis in Tigray, Bite Back or racism, I want to see a better world.

Image credit: Bite Back