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In conversation with Dev Sharma

Sharma represents a vanguard of youth turning to political engagement, who are becoming increasingly instrumental in challenging and shaping the policies of tomorrow. At fourteen, Sharma became an activist with the Food Foundation, taking demands to the offices of 10 Downing Street; at sixteen, he helped launch a charity with Jamie Oliver called Bite Back 2030. Now, at only eighteen, he chairs Youth Parliament, is Youth MP for Winchester and an award-winning food activist.

In this conversation, Sharma talks about food poverty, how he got involved in politics and charities, the difficulties of working with Westminster and how other young people can make change.

So, Dev, how and why did you get involved in politics?

I grew up in Leicester and it’s a very multicultural, diverse city. Food is integral to our culture. I grew up in a South Asian family where food is a big part of our lives. Leicester is known for the Golden Mile and people come from across the world to celebrate Diwali and eat there.

However, when I was around 13/14, I was at my youth club and a charity came over and told us that we grew up in a food desert. I'd never heard of a food desert. They explained it is an area with little access to healthy, nutritious food, where overwhelmingly food tends to be unhealthy. Those in food deserts die ten years younger than their more affluent peers. That meant my friends and I were more likely to die younger because of food-related ill health.

This problem is entirely preventable.

Ten companies control so much of the food that we eat. They spend billions to ensure that unhealthy food is in the spotlight. Many growing up in the UK have no opportunity to be healthy. Your school, canteen, streets, and screens completely flood you with unhealthy food. There's an overwhelming tide. I got involved to stop the current and ensure that my friends and I can grow up in a world where we can be healthy and have affordable options.

How did that desire to affect change turn into action?

The Food Foundation came to my area and sought a few young people to join as ambassadors. They were creating the UK's first-ever inquiry to hear directly from disadvantaged young people. The Food Foundation recruited me and a few friends. We wanted to create a charter. We said, why don't we write down every problem we see with the food system? So, we decided on five key asks.

That charter was picked up by Dame Emma Thompson, who became the inquiry's celebrity ambassador. She took it to the next level. I was 14 and she took us to 10 Downing Street. She got us a one-to-one meeting with Nadhim Zahawi, the children's minister. We had a launch in Westminster. She was the megaphone for us; she was passionate and really cared.

A few days later, someone in Jamie Oliver's team emailed, saying Jamie would love to meet up with me and a few other young people. We went to Jamie Oliver's HQ to create a campaign and start a charity. He didn't want to be the face. He said it's time young people speak truth to power. Since then, it's just grown, and we've been tracking the food system one step at a time.

Do you think you made your own luck, then?

I just got lucky. Having someone from Jamie's office randomly reach out, the support from Dame Emma Thompson. I found myself surrounded by real models who ignited my sense of purpose and instilled in me the belief the impossible was possible. They helped me channel my frustrations into positive energy.

Many of my friends back in Leicester have equal determination, are ambitious, and want to do their best. A lot of the time, the opportunities just aren't there. You've got to have ambition and passion, but you can only do that with help. Many people helped me.

In December 2022, the government agreed to delay the implementation of the legislation to restrict junk food advertising to October 2025. Was that a significant blow to the work that's been done by yourselves and those around you?

Absolutely, but it's more of a blow to our health.

A junk food advertising ban is something that industry wanted, that businesses wanted. Nonetheless, the government keeps succumbing to other pressures and delaying it. The ban will be responsible for adding 125,000 extra years to the lives of British children over the next 25 years.

When it was delayed, I was 16, and now I'm 18. I won't see it implemented until I've finished university. It's crazy.

How long did you imagine the timeline for the implementation to be?

We were told it would be implemented by 2023. It would be a massive shift, a world-first policy protecting children's health. Even businesses had come out and said yes. Currently, the government still needs to introduce secondary legislation to lay out, in parliamentary language, how it will get put into law. Ultimately, they are avoiding the responsibility of implementing something that was signed off in the 2021 Queen's Speech.

Frankly, it could be a year, it could be two years, it could be a decade, it could be into the next parliamentary cycle.

Why do you think it's not been pursued?

Short-term political gain. We noticed that Boris Johnson was out there saying the right things when we had a strong government. He understood that this was a systemic issue, not an individual one. If we want children to grow up healthy, we must ensure that the landscape around them reflects that.

As soon as times became tough, the legislation that protected our health was the first thing to go. It was seen as nanny state; not conservative. But I must disagree.

I was speaking with Tory ministers, MPs, and Tories in the Lords, who were saying that being conservative is very much about being liberal, about giving people options. However, it's only about options that are fair and healthy. Right now, when you're young, you're not being given the truth. You're not being given a fair and healthy shot.

This legislation allows you to do that. It is fundamentally a very Conservative thing to do. It's protecting people from harmful, malicious foods that are not good for them.

Considering how 2024 is shaping up, have you been in conversation with the Labour Party in preparation for them entering Parliament?

The current government has shut out the entire activism and the campaigning world. Everyone's strategy has shifted to lobbying the Labour Party as civil society anticipates a Labour government. In all circles, even within our organisation, we're trying to get through to those within the Labour Party to get into the manifesto.

Do you see yourself professionally becoming a politician?

Politics now doesn't reward sanity.

We see politics as a way to legislate change for the better and solve the world's injustices, but in the last few years, it has become a school playground. I just don't feel it's safe to be able to go into such a space when my mission is to centre my community.

Right now, activism and charity or international development are the best ways to do that. I'm enjoying being able to change government from the outside. If you go into politics at the moment, stressing at the moment, you deviate from your values. I have a strong set of values that I stick by, and that guides me.

So, going through government-controlled channels is not the most effective way to make change?

Businesses must be part of the solution. We need people to commit and to be able to set targets, and we can do that through lobbying and working with shareholders. Even when you have good channels with government it's hard because Westminster works in its own mysterious ways.

Do you feel you know how Westminster functions since you've been part of the youth parliament?

I'm lucky because I've spoken in the Commons. I've worked and communicated with government ministers and sat on roundtables with government departments. I've talked to the Department of Education and am speaking with them again about free school meals.

It's helped me understand the intricacies of Westminster, which look far-fetched to a young person growing up in Leicester.

With this in mind, how has the youth parliamentary inquiry into the cost-of-living crisis worked for you? When is the report supposed to be published?

So, the youth select community is the first time there will be a youth inquiry into the cost of living. It's due in February, and the government will have three months to reply officially. We've listened to young people. We've received some touching evidence of their experiences and testimonies in our oral sessions and even had industry and charity expert witnesses who have testified.

I'm really excited to see where it heads and to get some youth voices into this dialogue.

Is that the main goal: to provide young people's perspective on the cost-of-living crisis to government?

So, there are two main goals. We want to give the government a fair, balanced, honest account of what young people are experiencing. We want them to have a document detailing how it's impacting our life chances, mental health, physical health, and schooling. Everything it is to be a young person.

The second part is that the report will make recommendations. People in my local area and elsewhere are suffering. I'm hoping that the government listens and that those recommendations will actually make a difference in young people's day-to-day lives.

I've seen you before talking about lowering the voting age to 16. Is this similarly about giving youth a voice?

Young people are the largest minority in the UK. We make a fifth of the population. We've realised that in the climate movement, gun rights in America, Black Lives Matter, and so many different movements, young people are the ones banging the drums. They're creating the change and can authentically provide a voice that the current generation of adults can't understand.

We're living in a completely different world from our parents. Our parents didn't have access to the same amount of digital abundance we do. Despite it only being a generation or two ago, they lived in a very different time. Therefore, policy is often not future-proofed.

That is why it's so important to have the youth's voice. We aren't claiming to have the solutions. The inquiry is what is done in a factual, evidence-based manner by speaking to experts, providing evidence, and talking to those in the sector. When young people speak truth to power, we're not telling them we know the solutions. We want them to listen because they must understand that our world is different.

Well, I've just got one last question for you, Dev. If you could give a message to any other 13-14-year-old looking to get involved, what is the best way that they can make a change?

Being 13 or 14, the space is extremely gate-keepy. It was so difficult to try and have my voice heard.

So, the first thing is just knowing that your voice is powerful. Realising your lived experience is something nobody else has and is extremely valuable. Despite your age, whatever your circumstances, you should be listened to. There is truth, and there is power in your voice.

Secondly, find your people. None of my activism is just me. It's been my friends coming together; it's been some insane people that I've had the opportunity to meet and work with. Find the people who believe in you and remember there's power in numbers. Collective action is what gets heard.

In the junk food campaign I led, we realised that our voices would only hit through once we had actual young people by the government. We created the email action where we had 10,000 people sign an open letter, and then an algorithm bombarded Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson's inboxes with 10,000 emails.

Finally, find your niche. It may be too early, but if there is something that you know about in your local area, try to find it. You'll have to keep putting yourself out there. It took me a while before I realised that food is intersectional and connects with everything. It hit that nerve where I realised, I couldn't stay silent anymore.

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