Ōtara is already classified as an extreme food swamp with more than 12 unhealthy food outlets for every healthy food outlet. KFC thought they would add to the swamp by building a new outlet in Bairds Rd, even though their Papatoetoe outlet is only three minutes down the road.
The residents were outraged – they did not want another obesogenic food outlet in their community, which already has massive obesity and diabetes problems. Local councillor Efeso Collins, gave strong vocal support on behalf of his community.
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In the end, KFC quickly backed down, handing local democracy a rare victory.
It could have been a very different outcome and it usually is for these regular battles between communities and fast food chains.
As this news of the KFC backdown was breaking on Friday, I was giving a Zoom lecture to post-graduate health students. I was confidently predicting to the students that KFC would just barge on regardless, knowing that the community and Auckland Council have virtually no legal grounds to block them nor would they have the money or appetite to fight them in court.
I was very happy to learn, as soon as I finished the lecture, that my predictions were completely wrong.
Our research at the University of Auckland has found that in richer suburbs there are 3.7 takeaway outlets per 10,000 people. In poorer suburbs, it is 13.7 per 10,000. This four-fold difference is not an accident.
The companies know that people who are already struggling on low incomes make easy targets for selling more takeaways.
Besides, the residents in the rich neighbourhoods enjoy more protection – land in their areas is more expensive, the protests are louder, and the patronage is lower.
So poorer neighbourhoods cop more of the foods that will make their already substantial physical and mental health problems worse.
Why are junk food outlets legally allowed to set up shop right next to schools or in communities heavily burdened with the very diseases the junk food is creating when there is heavy community opposition? Why can't council zoning regulations support the community's health?
In theory, councils can make by-laws "to protect, promote and maintain public health and safety" but, in reality, there is very little on their by-law books to allow them to block a commercial activity if it is in an appropriate commercial zone.
A hazardous chemical factory would be blocked from setting up shop next to a school on health and safety grounds, but a junk food outlet would not be blocked. The current legal grounds for preventing KFC adding to Ōtara's food swamp are weak and multinational corporations have deep pockets, so the legal playing field is heavily stacked against the community.
There are also fundamentally different philosophies underpinning this tension between commercial priorities and community priorities. The previous National-led Government was so against councils building liveable communities that they actually amended the Local Government Act to remove the four wellbeings (social, economic, environmental and cultural) from the purposes of local government.
The Labour-led Government has since inserted them back into the Act - but with these flip-flopping directions from Wellington, it is easy to understand why the protection and promotion of community wellbeing has not yet been actioned in council by-laws.
Our research group and a panel of more than 50 independent and government experts have just completed a review of the current Government's progress on implementing food policies for healthier food environments.
The bottom line is that there has been no progress in the past three years. One important
recommendation from the expert panel was that the Government enacts legislation to allow and encourage councils to create healthy, community food environments.
Internationally, several countries are establishing Healthy School Food Zones which means that the food inside the school is healthy and the zone of 250-500 metres around the school has junk foods minimised, for example through no new fast food outlets and no advertising for unhealthy foods and beverages.
This should be an obvious policy for a Government and communities interested in improving child health and wellbeing.
Disadvantaged communities are trying to lift the liveability of their neighbourhoods, and the Thriving Otara collective is a good example of this.
People want to improve their living environments and the health of their community members. Government and councils can greatly support community efforts by strengthening the legislation and by-laws so that the health and the wishes of its citizens carry significant legal weight in deciding on applications for any outlets selling products which are harmful to health.
That would boost both local democracy and health promotion.
• Boyd Swinburn is Professor of Population Nutrition and Global Health at University of Auckland and chair of Health Coalition Aotearoa.