Tasha Mhakayakora: I am a food lover and a food advocate
Tasha, who previously sat on the organisation’s Youth Board, is particularly passionate about tackling childhood obesity and ensuring young people have equal access to healthy food.
She has been described as a “mini Marcus Rashford” for her campaign work persuading the Prime Minister to place a watershed on junk food ads, making the Mirror’s list of “inspiring voices of the future”.
We spoke to Tasha ahead of International Women’s Day to learn about what inspires her and how she found herself fighting this important fight.
Who is Tasha Mhakayakora?
I am a food lover and a food advocate. I love all kinds of food. I think that stems from being from an African background, as food is part of the culture. Growing up, I’d be in the kitchen making breakfast with my mum. So, I grew up in a food environment.
Besides that, I’m a normal university student. I study sociology and law, currently in Canada.
What makes you so passionate about tackling childhood obesity and improving young people’s health?
When I was 15, I wanted to do medicine, and so I ended up doing work experience shadowing the director of public health in my local borough, Lewisham. Something he said once resonated with me, which was “Obesity is not an individual problem, but a normal reaction to an abnormal environment”.
Since then, I’ve become a lot more observant about the area I live in. I realised my high street in Lewisham had six shops selling fast food. You go into a supermarket, and you’re targeted with marketing, whether it’s product placement or pricing. You have offers for junk food but never for carrots. A lot of young people don’t have access to local open spaces and youth clubs have closed, meaning they go to their local chicken and chip shop with friends, not because they’re necessarily hungry, but because it’s a social environment.
Since this realisation, I’ve been really passionate about changing things.
What was the moment you decided you were going to take a stand and do something to help improve our food system? How did you get involved with Bite Back 2030?
At around the same time, I was debating at school and my mentor told me about Bite Back and that Jamie Oliver was looking for a group of young people passionate about changing the world, and asked if I wanted to join. Bite Back taught me more about the food system and how it works and encouraged me to make a difference.
Were you always a strong, confident advocate or is this a role you’ve grown into through campaigning?
I’ve always been very outspoken. I started debating in Year 7 with my school against other schools in the area, as part of Debate Mate, and that was the thing I was really committed to - I went every single week. This really helped build my confidence in public speaking.
Once I started university, I became a mentor with Debate Mate, and it has been a really rewarding experience. I was once the student, and now I’m teaching young children how to debate.
It’s International Women’s Day. Are there any women you look up to, particularly any female campaigners or activists (past or present)?
I’m going to say Christina Adane - co-chair of Bite Back’s Youth Board. She is just phenomenal. Her enthusiasm and passion and her get-up-and-go attitude really inspires me. She does it with so much grace and authenticity. I love her Afro hair. Not many women in the activism space look like Christina or myself. So for her to go on BBC News and have the Afro, that’s representation and that is really important.
What do you think young activists bring to the table when it comes to influencing our Government, especially around reforming our food system?
Passion. Not that previous generations didn’t have passion, but it’s a sense of youthfulness, that enthusiasm is what we bring.
Also, the way I interact with the food system is very different to the way my mum does. So, bringing our unique experience and perspective helps us to come up with solutions that are relevant to us.
Young people today also use social media really well. In the past, we didn’t have these platforms, and so activism meant speaking at conferences or to traditional forms of media, whereas nowadays, you can be a normal person who doesn’t have an online presence, and you can still have an impact, simply by sharing your opinion or retweeting or liking something.
What has been your biggest campaigning success?
In 2020, the Prime Minister was looking to introduce a new strategy to tackle childhood obesity. We launched a campaign, including a two minute viral video, calling for a 9pm watershed on junk food advertising on TV and online. Number 10 got back to us and eventually announced these restrictions.
We were also competing with pandemic news at the time, and to still have been able to reach the Government, and for it to hear our voices in the midst of that felt very fulfilling. But our work is not done. We have to keep going to make sure what we are fighting for is fully implemented.
Tasha – Thank you for waving the flag for children’s health. We salute you on International Women’s Day (and every other day of the year) for your strong, powerful voice and your vision for a fairer, healthier food environment.