School students flooded with choice of fast food outlets

27 April 2016

Food retailers near schools may need to consider ways to reduce children’s exposure to unhealthy foods before and after school.

That’s the conclusion from the first nationwide spatial analysis of retail food environments around schools in New Zealand.

The study by University of Auckland researchers looked at the proximity and density of fast food, takeaway, and convenience outlets (FFTCs) around New Zealand schools in 2014.

More than 60 percent of urban schools have a convenience store and a fast food or takeaway outlet within 800 metres, while the density of unhealthy food outlets around urban schools is substantial (with a maximum of 85 unhealthy outlets per square kilometre found for one school).

The study, published today [27 April] in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, showed that access to unhealthy foods through food outlets within walking distance from urban schools is greater from the most socioeconomically deprived schools, (compared to the least socioeconomically deprived schools).

“As a way of protecting children from exposure to unhealthy food sources and obesity, creating healthy food zones around schools may be an important policy lever, but has not been widely implemented yet,” says lead researcher, Dr Stefanie Vandevijvere from the University of Auckland’s School of Population Health.

“Access to unhealthy foods through food outlets within walking distance from urban schools is substantial in New Zealand and greater for the most deprived schools,” she says.

“Health promoters should work with retailers to explore feasible actions to reduce children’s exposure to unhealthy foods before and after school,” says Dr Vandevijvere. “In future, provisions to allow Councils to restrict new food outlets in school neighbourhoods could also be included in the Local Government Act.”

Median road distance to the closest convenience store from urban schools was significantly higher for the least deprived schools (617 m) versus the most deprived (521 m) schools, while the opposite was found for rural schools.

“Among rural schools, representing about one third of schools in New Zealand, access to unhealthy food outlets does not seem to be a problem, as the median road distance to the closest unhealthy food outlet is more than 10 kilometres,” says Dr Vandevijvere.

Although some states in the USA and South Korea have taken some actions to limit unhealthy food outlets or sources around schools, the Local Government Act (2002) in New Zealand does not include provisions for the local Councils to allow them to enact similar zoning policies, she says.

The Health Act 1956 imposes on Councils a general duty to improve, promote, and protect public health.

“A revision of the Resource Management Act (1991), promoting the sustainable management of natural and physical resources in New Zealand, could be performed to include provisions to allow for limiting new food outlets in school neighbourhoods by Councils,” says Dr Vandevijvere.

“The student council of a school in Hamilton recently took action and approached nearby sweet and sugary drink sellers to ask them not to sell to pupils in uniform and six convenience stores have signed up to date,” she says. “This shows that voluntary approaches should be explored further, and that they have the potential to work.”