This week, I had the pleasure of sitting with Jessica Renzella - an Australian PhD student with Oxford University and a budding global health shaper. She told me about a new social campaign she’s leading, aimed at rethinking our food system - and with it, our collective future.
Hi Jess, great to see you again! Let’s start at the start. Tell me about NCDs, what are they and why do they matter?
NCDs stand for “noncommunicable diseases”, and represent the greatest global health challenge of our time. They account for over 60% of global deaths, with the burden ever-increasing across the world, but disproportionately affecting those from low income groups, and low- or middle-income countries.
Unlike their better-known counterparts communicable diseases (such as HIV, influenza, tuberculosis), NCDs are not transmitted from person to person, and include five groups of diseases: cardiovascular disease (heart disease), diabetes (type 2), cancers, respiratory diseases (lung), and mental health issues.
Physical inactivity, tobacco use, harmful use of alcohol and unhealthy diet are the main risk factors for the development of NCDs – all of which are modifiable.
Treatment is often long, complicated, and expensive, so prevention is paramount.
Unfortunately, NCDs receive little prevention funding, as return on investment is long-term. Adding to this is the huge profitability of risk factors for industry – and money talks. The sugar industry’s interference in soda tax regulations recently is just one example of this.
As a result, the NCD community is continuously innovating and advocating.
One of many in this NCD community, tell me about the non-profit you volunteer with. Who is NCDFREE?
NCDFREE is a global social start up that aims for a world free from preventable noncommunicable diseases. We’re dedicated to getting NCDs on the map of millennials everywhere through social media, design, short film, campaigns and creative events.
We believe that the key to winning the battle against NCDs, the fight of our generation, lies in creative new ways of thinking about global health.
Innovation seems a core theme. So why a Feast of Ideas?
Our current food system is making us sick. Malnutrition impacts every country around the world. Over two billion people suffer from overweight and obesity whilst 795 million do not have enough to eat.
This greenhouse gas intensive system is failing people and planet. Evidently, food is a global killer, but also our greatest opportunity for intervention.
Feast of Ideas is a one-month global effort to crowdsource thousands of solutions to our biggest food-related health challenges from people’s kitchens and dining rooms. Anyone can sign up to host a meal, invite their friends, cook something healthy and sustainable, and chat about the challenges we need to solve together.
I like to think of it as the edible embodiment of “Think Global, Act Local”.
We all speak the language of food and have the opportunity to communicate our ideas up to three times (meals) a day. Feast of Ideas is simply a way to tap into the important, world-changing conversations already taking place around the table with friends, family and colleagues.
Twelve out of the 20 leading health risk factors for the global burden of disease are linked to diet.
Sounds like a fun idea. Is this a global effort?
Absolutely. Global issues require global solutions and it’s evident that people are hungry for change and ready to serve up solutions EVERYWHERE.
We’ve seen 300 feasts in 56 countries (and counting) including Trinidad, Finland, Egypt, Taiwan, Nigeria, Puerto Rico, Paraguay, Morocco, Greece, Chile, and Italy.
It’s made Feast of Ideas a truly global crowdsourcing effort!
Receiving solutions via Twitter from the Amazon was a campaign highlight. If passionate young minds can share a meal and rewrite our future in the jungle, anyone can.
With the month almost done and just a few days left, how is the campaign going?
The response has been overwhelming, demonstrating that people care about our health and our future and want a seat at the decision-making table.
Beyond the numbers (300 feasts in 56 countries), three unexpected outcomes have contributed to the success and uniqueness of this campaign:
1) Cultivating community. We never expected people would sign up and proceed to open their homes or picnic rugs to like-minded strangers. Spin-off Facebook events and Twitter call-outs, naming a time and location for people to gather and discuss the Feast of Ideas questions, is a truly sensational and unexpected outcome.
2) Concept ownership. From menus to locations, decorations and discussion points, people have added so many personal touches to their Feast of Ideas. Over the weekend, a group of German students travelled to the market to source local produce, proceeded to cook together, and gathered their solutions on NCDFREE-coloured paper in the shape of a flower, demonstrating the connection between their ideas. It was magnificent!
3) Shattering the echo-chamber. Sometimes we feel like we’re preaching to the converted. Young, passionate medical or global health students are receptive to complex problems and innovative (often ambitious) ways of sourcing solutions. The diversity of minds that have gathered around Feast of Ideas has contributed to the richness of discussion and has provided a wonderful inquiry and sometimes opposition of ideas – an essential ingredient in finding the harmony between the ambitious and the practical.
Millennials can sometimes get criticised for online advocacy. Why use crowdsourcing and social media in this effort?
The internet connects and amplifies, with social media giving everyone a seat at the table from the comfort of their own home.
The issue we face is not a lack of ideas or passion to create change, it’s opportunities to communicate them and place them on policy menus. Crowdsourcing via social media overcomes so many barriers placed on the NCD movement. It allows us to raise awareness, inspire local and global action and amplify simple solutions to complex problems.
In each Feast of Ideas pack sent to participants, we’ve quoted Margaret Mead, “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” This is what Feast of Ideas, facilitated by modern technology, is all about.
By feasting, solving and sharing, Feast of Ideas is not just “clicktivism”, it’s activism. This campaign has created a global community of change-makers by unleashing the extraordinary power of sharing a meal.
Once the month is done, what is planned with the hundreds of crowd-sourced health solutions?
We’re planning the ultimate mouth-watering menu of solutions for a healthier food future.
This menu will be served in London at the campaign closing event at Aesop, attended by nutrition and health leaders and ground-breaking organisations such as EAT forum, Jamie Oliver Food Foundation and NCD Alliance.
Following this, the menu will have the magic wand of our policy-lead waved over it to be presented at Westminster, where health ministers and policy-makers will be all ears. Most importantly, the people’s menu will be made available to everyone via NCDFREE’s website and mailing list.
As the campaign continues to develop and gain momentum, interest from decision-makers continues to grow, along with opportunities for presentation!
Thanks Jess! Until next time and good luck!
Local and international experts, including myself, will be discussing food security, nutrition and prevention of obesity and non-communicable diseases, at The University of Sydney’s conference on global food governance from 1 to 3 November.
To continue the conversation, follow Sandro on Twitter or Insta at @sandrodemaio.
This column post was written by Dr Alessandro Demaio in his personal capacity. The views, opinions and positions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of any third party. This interview does not suggest an endorsement by Dr Demaio, nor any third party. Additionally, those providing comments on this blogs are doing so in their personal capacity, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions or positions of the author.
Authors: Alessandro R Demaio, Global Health Doctor; Co-Founded NCDFREE & festival21; Assoc. Researcher, University of Copenhagen