Security, connection & urgency: young people share their priorities for the food system

How does change happen? 

Sometimes it’s in seismic shifts – headlines in the legacy media, throngs of citizens taking to the streets, the passing of a new law. But more often than not, change happens slowly and subtly on the fringes – in words exchanged and moments of silent reflection, in new connections and a different perspective shared.

At the Food Ethics Council we firmly believe that one of the most important mobilisers of change within the food system is to convene and nurture spaces for people to come together and learn from each other.

In these trusted spaces, stakeholders can begin to collectively and thoughtfully come up with long-term, impactful solutions to the many challenges we face.  

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Food Ethics Council. 25 years of facilitating a shift to fairer food systems that respect people, animals and the planet. But instead of celebrating by taking the spotlight and showering ourselves in glory (ok, we did a tiny bit of that), we celebrated by doing what we do best – by bringing people together and listening. 

We thought, instead of looking back at what we’ve achieved over the past 25 years, let’s look forward to the next 25 years of food systems change. And who better to steer this future-facing conversation than young people, whose hands hold the future of the food system? So as part of our anniversary celebration at OmVed Gardens last week, we curated a panel of three people aged 25 or under, who are all working – from very different angles – for fairer food systems. 

We heard from Lucy Tarbox, a new entrant farmer who operates a cow-with-calf dairy in Hampshire with her partner, and invites schools and the public onto their farm to buy raw milk and learn about the cows. We also heard from Paige Hunt, Sustainability Executive at a major food retailer, and Christina Adane, founding co-chair of BiteBack 2030 and food justice campaigner fighting for young people’s access to nutritious food. 

During the panel, I asked each speaker what they feel is the biggest challenge we’re currently facing in food and farming. 

For dairy farmer Lucy, it’s a lack of financial security. With no control over ever-fluctuating farmgate milk prices, she’s unable to commit to investing back into the health and sustainability of her cows and farm operation. She described their choice of running a cow-with-calf system as a ‘massive leap of faith’, that isn’t currently matched by the price they receive for their product. 

Lucy also mentioned the huge disconnect between people and food, recounting a story of a recent school visit where a child had asked whether male cows produce milk. “How can things begin to change if people aren’t even aware of the issues?” She feels that farmers need to get better at bridging this disconnect by opening up farm gates and inviting the public in. 

Food systems education is also vital for Christina – “young people don’t realise what the food system really is, where the power lies and how they’re being exploited by it.” However, we often go wrong with food education by teaching children about nutritional values, sustainability and ‘good choices’, whilst ignoring the food environment that young people in urban spaces are exposed to – rampant junk food marketing and cheap chicken shops, countered by unaffordable restaurants. Education about food should be geared toward an awareness of the food environment. 

For Paige who works in retail, the biggest challenge she sees is a lack of urgency. There is a real resistance to doing things differently, because we’ve been doing things in a certain way for a very long time. There is so much information and conversation flying around, with business execs and decision-makers feeling that they need to be certain about all the answers and all the evidence before making a change. Instead, Paige suggests we should “be comfortable with being uncomfortable and moving forward into an unknown space.” 

Christina echoed that the lack of urgency is a really big challenge – one that led to her becoming burnt out by her campaigning work. “I kept having to justify my lived experience and justify my humanity to people in boardrooms, who don’t understand what it’s like to live in a food desert or be dependent on school food.” She said it’s vital to continue grounding your work in why you’re doing it – the real, urgent struggles and injustices that are the impetus for change.  

Another challenge highlighted by Paige is the eagerness to blame others within the supply chain, when actually, she sees everybody as having a clear role that can be taken on, in order to work together towards a shared goal. Christina resonated with this point, speaking of the importance of accountability – “we need to be honest about our impact on the food system and what we can do to change it. In a lot of the rooms I’ve been in, we just shift blame to the next person, rather than asking what can I do with the power that I hold. Because we all hold power, to a certain extent.”

Christina also mentioned the need to drop egos. “Organisations and individuals often want to be the first to do something or make the headline, but that’s not really the point. Food is all about community.” An audience member celebrated this argument, sharing a quote that “we can achieve more when we’re willing to not take credit for it”.  

It was important to us that we platformed voices from different areas of the food supply chain – from farm to city, from soil all the way to stomach. We at the Food Ethics Council like putting issues into a wider context, joining the dots between different sectors of the food industry, and drawing connections between impacts on people, animals and the planet. 

The panel demonstrated the power of young people. I think it’s fair to say that many audience members left feeling uplifted and hopeful. And in a time of disarray, hope is exceptionally important. 

To finish, I asked each speaker for one concrete action that people could take tomorrow that would make a difference.

  • For Lucy – go to a farm shop and buy one thing directly from a farmer. Learn about where it’s come from, and the people, land and animals behind its production. 
  • For Paige – follow up on an interesting connection that you make. Send a message, arrange to meet up again. It could lead to something really exciting. 
  • For Christina – be very conscious of the language you use when talking about food systems. For example, avoid the word ‘choice’, use ‘option’ and the ‘lack of option’ instead. 

During the event, we also took time to record short interviews with participants to ask for their challenges and priorities for the food system. We recorded over ten different interviews, with campaigners, researchers, activists, charity professionals, and business execs of different ages and backgrounds. Over the next month or so we’ll be weaving these interviews together to create a tapestry of ideas. Because again, for a system so complicated and vast, we need a plethora of perspectives. Keep your eyes peeled! 


Words by Tesni Clare.

Photographs by Will Hearle.