Photograph by Chris Johns, Nat Geo Image Collection
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A rainbow appears over a drought-stricken field.
Photograph by Chris Johns, Nat Geo Image Collection

To Bring People Together to Fix Global Challenges, Try Food

Some 749 million people worldwide go hungry every night, and almost two billion are overweight or obese. Our food system contributes substantially to greenhouse gas emissions. We overuse antibiotics.

It can be pretty depressing on this planet sometimes, when you think about it.

But Alessandro Demaio, a 30-year-old Australian whose medical work has taken him from Cambodia to Copenhagen, thinks we can solve these outsized challenges by connecting people through food and fun. He’s been a global health fellow at Harvard and in 2013 co-founded NCDFREE, a worldwide social movement for global health. Now he’s the mastermind behind festival21: a free, all-day celebration and festival on rethinking the future through food in Melbourne on December 11. (National Geographic is a partner.)

Before he settled into his latest challenge—working as a medical officer for noncommunicable conditions and nutrition at the World Health Organization in Geneva—Demaio and I talked about what makes him tick. Our conversation was edited for clarity.

What first drew you to the issue of global health, and specifically the role of food in it?

The answer to both is my parents. My dad is also a doctor and a passionate foodie. I grew up in an Italian-Australian household where food is celebrated and cooking is a right of passage—homemade tomato salsa and prosciutto. The veggie garden was always a family focus and we had chickens in the backyard for much of my life. In fact, one of my earliest memories is actually cooking with my mum as a toddler. I think the act of cooking with someone so loving associated the two together for me. I find food and cooking relaxing, enjoyable and a great creative outlet.

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Alessandro Demaio, festival21 founder

The story of global health though, is a little different. I was always a bit of a science nerd and loved biology. It was actually three experiences that all combined to really pave the road I am now walking. The first was in Sri Lanka where, after the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2014, I spent some time doing basic medical aid.

The second was, as a medical student, I had the privilege of working in some of the most remote towns in the Australian outback.

And the final was when earning my masters of public health, when I found myself in Cambodia running a community health project … in a Buddhist Wat to deliver basic healthcare and screening. In all three circumstances, something really surprised and challenged my thinking.

Whether in the aftermath of a natural disaster [in] some of the most remote communities on earth or in the capital of a developing country, I didn’t see an overwhelming burden of infection or starvation. I saw the same diseases I would see in Melbourne. Heart disease, obesity, diabetes, cancers, mental illness—these were the diseases affecting the world’s poorest and most marginalized, and yet these were understood by most in the health and policy communities as “rich person diseases.”

This set me off on a path to a PhD, co-founding two social startups and eventually a post-doc at Harvard, focusing on changing this situation.

How was festival21 born and what do you hope to accomplish with it?
Every great social transformation starts with a simple conversation—we hope to spark just that. The world often seems very complex and the great challenges of our time like obesity, climate change, and a breakdown in social contract and trust, seem impossible to tackle.

Every great social transformation starts with a simple conversation—we hope to spark just that.—Alessandro Demaio on festival21

Festival21 is about using something we all love to talk about things we would rather forget. It’s about turning the conversation killers into conversations for change. Because while issues like health, climate and community may seem disparate, they’re actually deeply connected in many ways … The most exciting part is that we all have the power to begin this change, with the very plate in front of us…

The agenda will include exhibits with pop-up vegetable gardens, free cooking classes, social entrepreneur and leader-led bootcamps on social innovation, and a free evening concert; featuring film, comedians, singers, fundraising, mindful eating, and more.

Every generation thinks it is at a crossroads requiring action. Why is right now any different?

We are not talking about a political conflict that can be solved by a treaty—we are talking about the future viability of our planet, and with it, ourselves. At the same time, no country on earth has managed yet to curb the rising burden of childhood obesity.

These are not issues that will eventually peter out or solve themselves. These are binary outcome decisions to be made today, that will decide the future of humanity forever. 2015 has seen a new [United Nations] global development agenda, a World EXPO on food sustainability and soon, the defining climate meeting in Paris.

Having said that, and I know it sounds very “doom and gloom,” we are also in a position to solve collective crises like never before. The democratisation of media, the instant communications across an economically and culturally converging planet, two huge blocks of global generational age—one that is young, passionate and concerned for the future; another that is aging and looking back with regret but holds the power to create and enable action.

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A map of Earth depicting the warming trend since 1960. National Geographic

I feel strongly that in 20 years we will either reflect with lament for inaction, or feel proud of the difficult decisions we made today to safeguard future populations.

How are you encouraging people, particularly young people, to take action?

There’s a myth about the millennial generations, but the vast majority I know or work with are not complainers, they’re doers! They just need the destination, the road, and the resources.

Through F21Y, the daytime social change and innovation bootcamp at festival21, we are offering just that…

Now that you have your dream job at the World Health Organization, at the ripe young age of 30, will you disappear down the rabbit hole?
Not a chance. From a young age, I dreamt of working here in Geneva, at arguably the headquarters of global health. It is a privilege and an enormous responsibility to be working for the World Health Organization, but this is not the end—it’s an incredible opportunity on a long and fascinating journey.

To affect change—real change—you need to have a voice, passion, knowledge, great mentors and peers. But you also need to be very humble and thirsty to learn and adapt. I am looking forward to taking all that I have learned from founding social startups, building teams, working around the planet and rallying a wide community to this new role. Similarly, I hope to build a new and complementary skill set, learn from my new team and team leaders here in Geneva. I might have a weekend off from time to time now, but my passion and focus on a better tomorrow is not going anywhere.

Follow Alessandro Demaio on Twitter.