One of the most memorable news stories during the UK’s first national lockdown in 2020 was the government’s dramatic last minute U-turn decision on providing free school meals during the holidays.

Famously, the footballer Marcus Rashford took on the cause and helped to amplify it, putting pressure on politicians by telling his own story of relying on free school meals growing up. At the same time, the public rallied to sign petitions and the issue of child food poverty was pushed to the top of the media agenda. The government was forced to listen.

But before all of that, it was a teenage activist from South London — the then 16, now 18-year-old Christina Adane — who started the campaign that helped get the issue on the map in the first place.

Adane started the first petition to push the government to continue providing vouchers to eligible families during the May 2020 half-term holiday — and when it garnered almost 500,000 signatures, the government agreed to continue the scheme during the break. The vouchers scheme that was under threat had been introduced to replace the meals that children from low-income families would normally eat at lunchtime when schools were closed during lockdown.

Adane recognised that ending this important lifeline to struggling families — amid a rising hunger crisis in the country — would have serious consequences amid the economic upheaval caused by the pandemic, and her petition laid the groundwork for continued free school meals support later that summer.

“It was the eighth week of lockdown and the government had announced that they were not going to provide food vouchers for people who rely on free school meals during term time ahead of the May half-term break,” she tells Global Citizen.

“I was enraged because it just didn’t make sense,” she continues. “I thought, wait, there’s an international pandemic and a lockdown happening, and not enough money coming in for low-income families — now is not the time to pull back the single most necessary provision for young people to ensure they have food in their bellies."

After launching the successful petition and garnering hundreds of thousands of signatures, “it blew up into a national campaign,” Adane says. But then the issue re-emerged as the summer holidays approached and the government once again said it would stop continuing to provide access to free school meals during the entire six-week summer holiday. 

“That’s when Marcus Rashford got involved and he was incredible at getting more attention to it, and the government U-turned again,” Adane says.

It makes sense that Adane was able to spot this issue emerging. Fighting against food poverty experienced by children and young people is a passion of her’s and a big part of her role as the co-chair of the Youth Board for the charity Bite Back 2030, a youth-led movement fighting for every young person to have access to healthy, nutritious food, no matter where they live.

The charity works to ensure that young people understand issues around food justice and how the food system works — as well as working towards a future where all young people have access to nutritious food no matter where they live. 

“I first found out about Bite Back when I was 15 during work experience at Debate Mate —  that's an amazing charity that helps young people learn to debate politics and get involved in taking action,” Adane explains.

A member of the team at Debate Mate mentioned to her that the celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver, was setting up a new initiative to fight youth food poverty and promote nutrition and access to healthy food — and Adane leapt at the chance to get involved straight away.

“In August 2019, I joined the youth board and the charity launched in October that year, so I’ve been there right from the start,” she says.

It was climate activism that sparked her interest in food, back in 2018 when the Fridays for Future climate school strikes started.

“I was starting to learn more about what I ate and how that is connected to the climate crisis. I became a pescatarian and I started learning about food miles and things like that,” Adane explains.

But as soon as she started discovering more things about the food system, the more it shocked her.

“Something that annoys me is the way that, for example, cereals will be marketed at children with children’s cartoons on the box. Why are tigers and cute animals on boxes? It’s to attract kids and to get their parents to buy them for them,” Adane continues.

“I have little siblings and so if I give them a bowl of this cereal it will be about 120g — a 30g average serving is unrealistic — then essentially I’m giving them about four times the amount of sugar that they should have that day.”

Adane says that Bite Back 2030 are campaigning against manipulative marketing of unhealthy food aimed at children with its #DontHideWhatsInside campaign.

“The obvious culprits are places like McDonald’s or Coke,” Adane says. “But there are places like Innocent smoothies and Naked bars where the sugar content is still high,” she continues. “It’s hard for young people to eat healthy because even if something is packaged nicely and presented as a healthy option, it’s still just as high in sugar as what would typically be seen as unhealthy foods.”

Adane says the charity’s research shows that while over 70% of the young people they surveyed say they believe they are choosing healthy options, only 6% actually report have a healthy diet according to government standards.

“That’s because of young people being misled, and there being a lack of transparency and honesty around what is really in foods,” Adane says, and so improving transparency is one of her key areas of work.

Another thing that shocked her was finding out she lives in what is known as a food desert — areas where the population lacks consistent access to nutritious food due to poor public transport links and a lack of big supermarkets. A 2018 study found that around 10 million people in Britain live in a food desert.

“I didn’t even know for the whole time I’ve lived in this country I’ve lived in a food desert,” says Adane. “I didn’t know that just because of where I live I am twice as likely to develop obesity and I’m more likely to die 10 years younger than people in more affluent areas.”

That issue relates to her wider concerns about food inequality. Adane says she was pleased that the national conversation last summer helped spotlight issues such as the free school meals system and the ongoing stigma that faces children in low-income families that rely on the scheme and on food banks.

“The system is flawed because many children that are eligible don’t realise they are, or they don’t get their full entitlement,” Adane says. “There’s also still a huge amount of stigma surrounding free school meals.”

Adane has been open about her own story of getting free school meals, and so have other members of the Youth Board, she explains: “I hope by telling my story it helps destigmatize it.”

The whole issue needs looking at, Adane continues, and while she doesn’t have all the answers, the situation showed that communities should be listened to by policy makers about their needs. 

“Communities are at the centre and should be way more involved in a solution. There are some solutions that would work better in rural areas, versus cities, for example — I don’t think there is a sweeping solution [to child food poverty] that works everywhere,” she says.

Adane has a busy job as co-chair of Bite Back 2030’s Youth Board. She says it involves being a bridge of communication between young people and the experts and staff working for the organisation and others in conversations about food policy. It’s tough balancing with school work, she says, but it’s worth it.

“I’m representing the voice of the youth in those conversations essentially, with people in positions of power,” she explains.

Despite the busy schedule, Adane doesn’t hesitate to recommend that other people her age get involved in similar opportunities if they can and has lots of tips for anyone who wants to raise their voice and campaign on issues they care about in their community.

“My first bit of advice would be, don’t be afraid to be vulnerable and have confidence in your own voice,” she says. “Feel like your voice matters, because it does. Prioritise the message and the aim.”

She adds that smaller-scale organisations and grassroots initiatives can make all the difference. “If we are going to be solving the world’s problems practically, it has to come from solutions that are bottom up and smaller scale. Not just top down. So don’t feel you’re not doing enough. “You’re speaking about it because you have something important to say and you want to make a change.” 

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