Unleashing The Power Of The Youth In Food Systems Change

Food & Drink

Maureen Muketha is a Kenyan nutritionist and founder of social enterprise, Tule Vyema (meaning ‘Let’s eat right’ in Swahili). She is an advocate for UN Sustainable Development Goal #2 (#Zero Hunger), a member of the leadership team for UN Food Systems Summit Action Track 1 (Ensure access to safe and nutritious food for all) and a youth leader of #Act4Food #Act4Change, a global youth-led movement calling for youth to pledge action to combat hunger, improve health, and heal the planet.

Muketha is also the first person to refer to me as “Daph” right off the bat— and I am enthused and uplifted, but not at all surprised, by her comfort and confidence— having already witnessed her assertively initiate a radical call to action among the world’s 1.8 billion young people for meaningful participation in global food systems change.

In Muketha’s home country of Kenya, more than 80 percent of farmers are small-scale and women. Despite being on course to meet four of the five World Health Assembly nutrition targets, a recent report from the Kenya Food Security Steering Group reveals that at least 1.4 million of the country’s population of 45.5 million people is facing acute hunger, with 4.2% of children acutely malnourished and 26.2% of children chronically malnourished (Action for Hunger). Yet only 4 per cent of Kenya’s annual budget is allocated to agriculture.

To this end, Tule Vyema, Muketha’s social enterprise works to eliminate malnutrition in local communities by raising awareness of proper feeding practices.

“We need to pull up our socks,” Muketha says adamantly, of limited youth participation in addressing the current food systems crisis. “We have more agency now than ever. We have the ability to put pressure on governments.”

Lawrence Haddad, Executive Director of Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), 2018 World Food Prize Laureate, Chair of Action Track 1 of the UN Food Systems Summit and co-convener of the Standing Together for Nutrition coalition of researchers, agrees. “Half the world is under 30. They have to live with the consequences of decisions taken today longer than anyone else but they have relatively little say in how the decisions are made and what they are.”

Muketha and the 21 other youth leaders of #Act4Food #Act4Change are aware of the latent potential that is waiting to be unleashed among the youth. “We have the power to take action ourselves and the right to demand urgent large-scale action from decision-makers in government and business to defeat hunger, improve sustainable healthy diets and improve our planet,” say the youth leaders.

Haddad believes that the youth of today are bolder than ever before.

“They are not captured by the world as it is. They ask hard but fundamental questions. Politicians and businesses want to be liked by them,” he says. “They are future voters, customers and leaders and connect with influencers and one another in louder, more radical yet informal means, using platforms such as Tik Tok that they dominate.”

The #Act4Food #Act4Change global youth pledge raises awareness around key food systems issues and priority actions, galvanizing global youth action towards the objectives of the movement, urging both the public and the private sector to act boldly and urgently.

Both Haddad and the youth leaders see the important role of adults in supporting young people in the movement, and while only youth are asked to take the pledge of food systems action, all are invited to be a part of the solution. The #Act4Food #Act4Change website contains toolkits for educators and other youth influencers.

“In this movement, you are either a youth or an ally,” Muketha explains.

Haddad wants young people from all over the world to recognize that they don’t have to accept food systems as they are; that there are legacy dynamics at play that are causing illness and imbalance— both human and environmental— that are being passed down from one generation to the next.

“Unsustainable and unhealthy food systems are making your parents sick, they are making the environment sick and they will make you sick too,” he says.

Youth leaders of #Act4Food #Act4Change have been calling out to young people all over the world, including those in remote and rural areas and those among the most vulnerable populations— to sign the pledge and make five actionable promises towards meaningful change.

They have also been sharing stories from their own countries. Youth leaders, Webster Isheanopa Makombe from Zimbabwe and Lavetanalagi (Lagi) Seru from Fiji, for example, recently shared their experiences via the World Health Organization event “Building towards healthy and sustainable food systems in Small Island Developing States: listening to voices from young people”.

“Young people are the powerful voice of the next generation,” says Haddad. “Collective action is required at this mid-way point of the UN Decade of Action on Nutrition.”

Youth food systems action has taken a variety of forms, such as volunteering at food banks and getting schools or universities to provide students with healthier food. Youth activists have organized meetings with local government representatives, set up petitions, staged sit downs or sit ins and have called out food retailers that are pushing cheap, unhealthy food.

Says youth leader, Lavetanalagi (Lagi) Seru from Fiji, “Transforming our food systems requires a whole of society approach and young leaders who are in recognition of the interconnection of our struggles— from the climate crisis and biodiversity loss, food hunger and poverty to water and health security, are boldly stepping forward and manifesting their demands through this pledge for a better and sustainable world.”

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