Confronting a Global Epidemic of Obesity and Disease: An Interview with Jack Fisher

Confronting a Global Epidemic of Obesity and Disease: An Interview with Jack Fisher
Staff Writer
From, by Niyati Shah

NCDFREE is a global nonprofit and social movement launched in 2013 that is committed to expanding awareness on noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) and the urgency they present to the world community. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), NCDs are the leading cause of death globally, accounting for around 63 percent of all deaths each year. NCDFREE envisions a world free of NCDs like cancers, lung diseases, heart diseases, diabetes, and mental illnesses that burden the poorest and marginalized people the most, but that are also largely preventable. Founded by brothers Alessandro and Giuseppe Demaio along with a global network of young professionals, the organization seeks to rally millennials world-over to drive the movement forward. 

Through the use of social media, film, design, advocacy, and educational and leadership events, the NCDFREE team works to advance the dialogue, highlight change-makers from around the world, and build connections to help create social and political transformations.

Jack Fisher is NCDFREE’s Global Coordinator for Europe and Africa.  With a background in global health, he works within the areas of communication, advocacy, and social change. Food Tank had the opportunity to discuss with Jack the challenges facing the NCD movement, NCDFREE’s upcoming global health campaign #FeastOfIdeas, and why he believes the millennial generation will play a vital role in influencing a more sustainable future.

Food Tank (FT): What do you believe is the biggest challenge to the global fight against NCDs?

Jack Fisher (JF): One of the biggest challenges around the fight against NCDs is switching the rhetoric from this being an issue that exclusively impacts white, rich males, to being a truly global health challenge that disproportionately affects poor women in low and middle-income settings. This shocks most people, but three out of four premature deaths (under the age of 70 years) relating to NCDs occur in low and middle-income settings. Once we change this perception, those in power can hopefully start to implement effective and appropriate solutions, which improve the lives of those most in need.

FT: Can you describe the impact that food production and consumption and environmental problems have on the global NCD epidemic?

JF: Firstly, many parts of the world are undergoing rapid changes in their diets, moving from local, seasonal, traditional diets, to urban ‘westernized’ diets that are high in sugar, salt, and fat. We know that having an energy dense, nutrient-deficient diet leads to an increased risk of developing chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers.

At the same time, to meet the ever-growing demands of the largest global urban population in human history, our food systems are changing to meet the growing needs of this refined diet. As food systems become more centralized, whilst moving further away from local production and consumption, our carbon footprint increases from field to fork. This is also coupled with the growing issue of minimizing food waste across low, middle, and high-income countries, whilst we live in a world where nearly 2 billion adults worldwide are overweight, and more than 460 million are still undernourished.

Finally, these same urban environments often lack adequate infrastructure that promotes walking or cycling as alternatives to using sedentary and carbon-intensive modes of transport. Therefore, by building more health-friendly cities that promote active lifestyles, we can also reduce exposure to air pollutants, which are one of the biggest risk factors of all NCDs.

FT: What is #theface campaign? How has it contributed to NCDFREE’s mission?

JF: #theface was a global health campaign which aimed to put a face to noncommunicable diseases. During the month of October 2014, we crowdsourced hundreds of stories across 50 different countries from people who were positively affecting or negatively affected by NCDs. We asked individuals to upload a picture of themselves using our campaign tumblr page with a short quote or story that encapsulated their relationship with NCDs. We reached over a million people during this time and it was the first campaign of its kind to source tangible and inspirational stories from young millennials. The great thing is that we continue to receive personal stories, which are still available on our website.

FT: Tell us about the NCDFREE bootcamps. What makes them important in the battle against NCDs?

JF: Our bootcamps bring together a wide variety of young professionals and students to engage in NCDs over a jam-packed weekend. We really try to bring a mixture of emerging minds together from all backgrounds including health, business, engineering, art, music, and more to try and source new ways of engaging in this topic. We organize energetic ted-talk presentations from established and emerging leaders to provide the inspiration, advocacy skills, innovation, and leadership necessary to be effective change agents.

This is combined with our now famous incubator sessions and a variety of group exercises, where we get to fully utilize this unique melting pot environment to unearth the best solutions from our talented participants. By the end of the weekend, our bootcampers are ready to re-enter the world with the skills to enact social change, combined with a new network of inspirational millennials who are willing to co-create in the future. 

We have held bootcamps in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, London, Copenhagen, Ottawa, and Cairo, mobilizing local networks around the world to join the global NCDFREE social movement. 

FT: What do you believe to be the greatest strength of the millennial generation in achieving the goals of sustainability? 

JF: Millennials matter when we talk about the urgent need to shift to a more sustainable future for humans and our planet. 

Let’s start with the numbers - millennials have now surpassed the ‘baby boomers’ as the largest living age group in the world. Secondly – millennials are the first generation to see the impacts of climate change and subsequently are aware of the urgent need for action. As a result, many millennials are very conscious not to make the same mistakes as previous generations. Finally, the plethora of digital technologies that millennials use on a daily basis means that we have never been better connected as a global community. By harnessing these passions (including a little youthful brashness and drive) and the technological advancements that unite us, I am certain that our age group will be a central driving force for global social change in the pursuit of a healthier, more sustainable future.

FT: Can you tell us a story of change-making in the movement against NCDs that you may have come across and found inspiring?

JF: It’s tough to pinpoint only one story. I’m constantly inspired by our talented filmographers and the short films they commission for us. Last year I was blown away by our Sowing Seeds film, which explored the role of community gardens for integrating healthier lifestyles within the Karen population in Melbourne. The same amazing filmographer, Kim Paul Nguyen, has just finished a compelling film focusing on the soda tax in Mexico, which really gives a tangible narrative to this leading policy move. The power of film in communicating complex stories, and in inspiring widespread action continues to amaze me. 

I’ll be looking forward to the completion of our Migration Health in Europe and Indigenous Health in Australia films later this year. It’s very exciting for us to explore these politically charged, sensitive topics and introduce the world to the local champions who continue to advocate for a healthier, fairer future for all despite challenging conditions.

FT: What message would you like to give youth who are interested in becoming involved in this campaign?

JF: The best piece of advice I would give is to JUST JUMP IN! Whether it’s attending one of our events or emailing us to find out how to get involved, the benefits, both personal and professional, of engaging with a group of passionate, driven young people are endless. I am constantly blown away by the positivity, enthusiasm, and creativity I see around the world at our events, and by my sensational team dotted around the globe.

If you’re ready to jump in and get involved in our next global health campaign — #FeastOfIdeas — launching in October, then feel free to say! Over 30 days, #FeastOfIdeas will inspire and support over 200 dinner parties across the globe, crowdsourcing ideas from dinner tables to create the ultimate menu of solutions for a better food future. It’s the ultimate opportunity to explore your appetite for change and serve up the solutions you want to share with the world. Who doesn’t love an excuse to eat, think, and talk all things food?  

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