Guest blog: Exploring how popular culture shapes our health too

As a food rights campaigner, FrameWorks UK’s research has been essential to the way I talk about children’s health and food. Their toolkit informed the language used by campaigns group Bite Back, which I was a part of throughout my teenagehood. I saw in real time through our conversations with policymakers how essential narrative shift was to getting the right systems thinking across. This summer I took an internship with the team to dive deeper into how we can shift mindsets through culture. This article expands on some of my thoughts that have developed through my time exploring how we can embed framing in popular culture.

So many aspects of our daily lives are by design; from the cutlery we use at breakfast, to the mattress we go to sleep on at night, to the device you’re using right now. We take good design for granted, something the late Virgil Abloh spoke about at length. For example, many users only realised Twitter’s branding brilliance when Elon Musk started changing it for the worse.

In the same vein, the systems which shape our lives are by design too, and because they are so embedded into our mindsets and practices they are often quite invisible. Take the food system for instance; food is essential to our lives yet we rarely think about the globalised infrastructure behind what we eat. It’s a system hidden in plain sight. Due to the sheer scale and complexity of the system at hand, this thought piece focuses specifically on the consumer facing side and its intersection with cultural practices.

Big food companies have successfully embedded themselves into youth and black culture, appropriating components of cuisines like Southern Food to produce low quality, low-cost products at high volume, then market them back to the very communities which created them. The intimacy, care, and community in the cultural heritage of the food gets stripped down to a beige, commercial product for mass consumption. Multi-billion pound conglomerates get away with cultural erosion and appropriation that has serious ramifications for our health.

In fact they don’t just get away with it, they are celebrated for it. They buy cultural capital through collaborating with brands and celebrities in music, sports and fashion, making junk food sexy and desirable. In recent years, these companies have ingrained themselves even further into the cultural fabric of youth and black identity through becoming a main source of funding and resources for cultural incubators and events. It’s common to see a show hosted in a chicken shop, celebs round a table in Nando’s, YouTubers sponsored by energy drinks, events powered by Wingstop or sportspeople funded by Coca Cola. It’s hard to think of one brand affiliated with youth culture that’s actually good for our health.

Meanwhile, any time a health brand is trending, it tends to play into the idea that ‘food is the new fashion’. Celebrities and creators might share their haul of extremely expensive goods from a store like Erewhon, suggesting that a healthy lifestyle is reserved for the select few in society.

Interestingly in the UK, those leading the fight to redesign and improve our food system tend to be middle-aged well-off white men. The likes of Jamie Oliver, Henry Dimbleby, Chris Van Tulleken are influential figures in food policy and beyond who have devoted their careers to fighting for a fairer food system for all. There are barely any figures from other backgrounds who hold that level of influence in the food space, despite the acknowledgement from within that this must change. Marcus Rashford, arguably the only person who broke the mould, later signed a multi-million pound sponsorship deal with Coca-Cola.

This inertia is probably due to the fact that the loyalty in young and black communities towards junk food brands is so strong that it is seen as ‘anti-black’ or ‘anti-youth’ to speak out against them. The challenge here is to get different segments of society to recognise we are all impacted by the same system, so there must be a collective and representative effort to hold its players to account if we want to redesign an equitable food system for all.

What surrounds us, shapes our health. And right now our supermarkets and high streets are flooded with unhealthy options. This is a problem which has been designed into our daily lives – with too many food companies profiting from food that is making people ill.

Companies must be regulated. They will not change voluntarily. But as we break this cycle we must create a new one. We must push for a better food system that is accessible, desirable and sustainable. A big part of creating this demand for change is shifting how people understand the problem we face, and the solutions to it.

We must move away from putting the onus on the individual and instead point to the food environment making us all ill. FrameWorks UK have been working with Impact on Urban Health and several organisations and campaigners to tell a new story focussed on the food environment. But given the grip Big Food has via popular culture, we must also explore how we can take this story to these platforms.

How can we use mediums like sports, fashion and music to catalyse a shift in systems thinking and visualise what good food can look like? This is a difficult challenge considering Big Food’s involvement in mainstream culture, but it is possible. The moment at the Euro 2020 news conference when Ronaldo pushed the Coke bottles out of frame and told viewers to ‘drink water’ instead caused Coca-Cola’s market value to drop by $4 billion.

Food is a highly emotional subject. For many of us, its integration into our culture has associated processed foods with intimate and nostalgic memories. Chicken shops provided a safe place to hang out after school where we could stay off the streets and out of danger. It was a cheap and satisfying meal that became a social ritual. But we must look at why this was the only affordable option, why there were no other safe and dry places in our urban environments where young people could socialise, and how chicken shop culture has been stigmatised to perpetuate classist and racist assumptions of ethnically marginalised communities. A fine example of this is the Home Office’s knife crime campaign in 2019, where over 300,000 chicken shop takeaway boxes were distributed with anti-knife crime slogans and stories.

The exploitation and commercialisation of youth and black culture by Big Food points to a deep-rooted problem that goes beyond our food system. Who owns our cultural institutions? Why are existing cultural mediums so easily exploited? Is culture for sale?

By exploring routes into culture, I hope we can find authentic ways to disrupt and mobilise popular culture towards positive changes in our food system. I hope this work can pave the way to a better culture created by and for young people – culture which will ultimately improve our health, not harm it.