Burgers at school: Your kids' access to fast food

Photo / iStock
Photo / iStock

• First study of its kind in NZ
• Neighbourhoods checked from 2473 schools
• 62 per cent of urban schools has a fast-food shop within 800m
• One school had 85 unhealthy-food outlets per sq km within 800m
• Researchers want law changes to stop unhealthy-food premises near schools

South Korea may seem an unusual pick for a role model, but researchers want policymakers to follow the Asian nation lead to better protect Kiwi kids from junk food.

As the ink dries on the Auckland University team's study revealing the extent of unhealthy food choices outside the school gate, they urge a closer look at South Korea's "green food zones", which ban sales of unhealthy foods to children within 200m of schools.

Lead researcher Dr Stefanie Vandevijvere says the Special Act on Children's Dietary Life Safety Management relies on a list of unhealthy foods and drinks that cannot be sold or advertised to children.

She wants New Zealand lawmakers to allow councils to limit new convenience stores and fast-food and takeaway outlets near schools after her group found a large majority have an unhealthy-food shop within 800m of their school.

In the first study to look nationwide at the number and density of unhealthy-food outlets near schools, nearly all schools' neighbourhoods were checked. Only the Chatham Islands and a handful of other areas were omitted.

Sixty-nine per cent of urban schools have a convenience store within 800m and 62 per cent have a fast-food or takeaway shop within that distance.

Published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine today, the research found the greatest density of unhealthy-food outlets within 800m of a school is 85 within one square kilometre. Schools in the central business districts of our largest cities are where pupils were exposed to the most unhealthy-food stores nearby.

Access to unhealthy foods at shops within walking distance of urban schools is greater for schools in the poorest areas than the wealthiest.

Before the national study, only smaller, regional studies had been done of unhealthy-food outlets near schools. Research in Christchurch found that the median number of fast-food outlets near schools increased from one, to four in the four decades to 2006; the clustering of these food premises near schools was greatest in the poorer areas.

The Auckland University team are also urging schools to follow the lead of Rhode Street School in Hamilton, where students appealed to local shops and most agreed to stop selling lollies and sugar drinks to pupils in uniform before and after school.

The study is intended to help researchers and policymakers work out ways to reduce New Zealand's and the world's obesity epidemic, something that has eluded everyone to date.

Around one-third of New Zealand children are overweight or obese and the proportion is around two-thirds among adults, the third highest rate among wealthier countries.

Dr Vandevijvere said it was important to identify the number of unhealthy-food vendors near schools, "because children are exposed on their way to and from school.

"We don't have any data on how many children buy from convenience stores in the morning, but on the way to work you can see children entering these premises and buying stuff before and after school.

"If we can have retailers pledging not to sell any junk food to children before and after school that might be a big first step."

But she acknowledged that no link between obesity and access to unhealthy-food shops had been clearly established by research.

"The evidence is quite mixed because the methods are very different. Some studies do find an association, while others don't.

"You don't have to wait for the evidence to take action. It's the same with sugar tax - there's no definite evidence. It's hard to get definite evidence in science. The fact unhealthy food is so available, accessible and affordable, we should protect children from potentially harmful products.

"It's not a single solution to solving obesity; it's part of the solution."

Green Party health spokesman Kevin Hague wants much more done to reduce obesity because of its link in type 2 diabetes, a disease which he says threatens to swamp the health system, consuming more than $2 billion a year in treatment costs by 2021.

"In particular we need to be changing the obesogenic environment. That means restricting where unhealthy foods can be bought, as well as making unhealthy foods more expensive and severely restricting marketing practices, while doing our best to make healthy foods more easily available, cheaper and better marketed."

The Greens want the reinstatement of healthy school food regulations, "and these would be made more effective if the neighbourhood around a school can also be made a health-promoting zone".

Health Minister Jonathan Coleman's spokeswoman said he was unavailable. He has previously noted that the Government has 22 initiatives targeting child obesity.

A spokesman for the McDonald's chain said that while it did not seek out locations near schools when building new premises, its restaurants and franchisees typically developed strong relationships with local schools over time.

"This is through requests for sponsorship, school visits as part of curriculum studies, and as an employer.

"We actively work to limit our advertising to children, such as excluding billboard advertising of our food near schools, and preventing children seeing any McDonald's advertising on digital devices.

"We offer a range of food and beverage choices, and continue to work on nutritional improvements to our menu. Recently we announced a target to further reduce the amount of sugar consumed across our menu, and we are currently trialling Happy Meals that include a whole apple."

School tackles dairies

Tui Pakiea and Chris Everrit (Right), both aged 10 working in the vegetable garden of their primary school Rhode Street School in Hamilton, a health promoting school. Photo / Supplied
Tui Pakiea and Chris Everrit (Right), both aged 10 working in the vegetable garden of their primary school Rhode Street School in Hamilton, a health promoting school. Photo / Supplied

Rhode Street School's students have taken direct action to improve the "food environment" of their neighbourhood.

In 2014, the student council decided to approach nearby shops and ask them not to sell lollies and sugar drinks to pupils in uniform before or after school.

Staff at the Hamilton school, which serves lower-income suburbs, say four of five local dairies agreed to the scheme, which follows other health initiatives there.

"We are trying to encourage kids to set them up for life," says the school's property manager, Alastair Kerr.

"We are part of the Healthy Eating-Healthy Action under the district health board. We have lots of gardens, we grow vegetables and fruit. We have a commercial kitchen. If kids want lunch it costs $5. We make it on site with fresh fruit and vegetables from the gardens.

"We don't sell anything unhealthy like soft drink or lollies."

Mr Kerr says that the student council's initiative with local dairies had led to lollies becoming a rare sight at school - "It's made for a much healthier environment".

The school's approach to health and food was strongly supported by parents and he urged other schools to follow its lead.

"I think community involvement is the key. We do have a good relationship with our local community."

The Auckland University researchers showed that access to unhealthy foods at shops within walking distance of urban schools is greater for schools in the poorest areas than the wealthiest.

Before their national study, only smaller regional studies have been done of unhealthy-food outlets near schools. Research in Christchurch found that the median number of fast-food outlets near schools increased from one, to four in the four decades to 2006; the clustering of these food premises near schools was greatest in the poorer areas.

Dr Vandevijvere points to South Korea as one of several places where food restrictions have been imposed around schools. Its "green food zones" ban the sale of unhealthy foods within 200m of schools.

Green Party health spokesman Kevin Hague wants much more done to reduce obesity because of its link in type 2 diabetes, a disease which he says threatens to swamp the health system, consuming more than $2 billion in treatment costs by 2021.

"In particular we need to be changing the obesogenic environment. That means restricting where unhealthy foods can be bought, as well as making unhealthy foods more expensive and severely restricting marketing practices, while doing our best to make healthy foods more easily available, cheaper and better marketed."

The Greens want the reinstatement of healthy school food regulations, "and these would be made more effective if the neighbourhood around a school can also be made a health-promoting zone".

Health Minister Jonathan Coleman's spokeswoman said he was unavailable this afternoon. He has previously noted that the Government has 22 initiatives targeting child obesity.

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf05 at 08 Dec 2016 03:42:41 Processing Time: 643ms