Calls to regulate fast food in ‘Heart Attack Alley’

Health experts and community residents have dubbed a West Auckland stretch of road ‘Heart Attack Alley’.

West Auckland’s Lincoln Road is not only home to more than 34 fast food restaurants, it’s also within walking distance of seven local schools.

Without doubt, this is a food environment that needs to change and Minister of Health, Dr David Clark, clearly agrees.

Last week he told TVNZ1’s Q+A that he is keen for more regulation of fast food advertising and has been talking to the Food Industry Task Force about what changes can be made.

So back to Lincoln Road: within 800m of the schools there’s a McDonalds, Pizza Hut, KFC, Texas Chicken – Burger King even has an enclosed basketball hoop to further tempt students.

Henderson Intermediate deputy principal Debbie Wylde has said it’s hard to compete with the fast-food options when trying to encourage students to make the healthier choice with their money:

“Parents will give their children lunch money for the week. We have a school canteen which has many healthy lunch options. However, many students are drawn in by the fast food advertising and spend their money outside school gates – purchasing fast food before and after school. I regularly stop students bringing in large fizzy drinks onto school grounds as we’re a water-only school. It’s a frustrating reality for our community.”

A new study by the University of Auckland, in partnership with Healthy Families Waitākere and published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, has revealed what the community sees as barriers to children receiving the recommended 5 + A Day fruit and vegetable intake. West Auckland community residents took part in a workshop series for the study and the key barriers identified were:

- The high density of fast food outlets;

- The high volume of fast food advertising and promotion;

- The high cost of fresh produce in comparison to fast food;

- Parents having little time for food preparation;

- Declining cooking skills and knowledge among parents and caregivers.

Participants said there were two barriers they felt were outside of their control: the toll of low-income work on health, and the density of fast food outlets with pervasive advertising and signage in their neighbourhoods.

One study participant remarked, “How do you change what is sold right outside the school? I have a lot of respect for the shop owners – we all grew up knowing them – but what they’re selling is not good for our kids.”

Some parents work multiple low-wage jobs with inflexible hours which leaves them with little time to cook meals. Consequently, parents have little to no time to cook nutritious meals and share this experience as a family, which compromises important life skills from being passed throughout their next generation. This inevitably leads to poor health outcomes and increased rates of preventable chronic disease.

Participants also said families with low household budgets are more likely to prioritise satiety – feeling full – over nutrition.

School principals told us that students were walking in the front gates with breakfasts of $5 fried chicken and chip combos, purchased from fast-food outlets just outside school. A meal like this provides satiety, but leaves their young brains ill-fuelled for a day in the classroom.

The number of children eating enough fruit and vegetables is in steady decline across Aotearoa. For the past three years, the New Zealand Health Survey has found half of children aged 2–14 years (50 percent) do not eat enough vegetables (two serves a day for pre-schoolers, three serves for 5-14 year-olds). Fruit and vegetable intake is lower in the Auckland region, where only 42 percent of children meet the recommended ‘5+ A Day’, and even lower among non-European children and children living in areas of high deprivation.

Earlier research conducted in New Zealand found that, on average, eating a healthy diet is more expensive than an unhealthy diet, particularly when takeaways are included. And while it is possible to eat a healthy diet for the same price, this requires more time and cooking skills.

The rise of Uber Eats has increased the availability of fast food. One participant said, “My teenage son gets Uber Eats delivered to his bedroom window – how can I compete with that?” Another said: “When I open the [Uber] app in this neighbourhood there are 117 places that can deliver me food in 20 minutes and none of them are a healthy choice.”

We are backing the call by participants of the study for government regulation of the fast food sector to address advertising standards and outlet density. Communities cannot tackle these systemic issues on their own – they can’t limit advertising and shop signage, or prevent more fast food outlets from opening in their neighbourhoods.

The community also told us they would like to see the Fruit in Schools programme expanded to more schools (the programme is currently only available to decile one and two primary and intermediate schools) and to high schools, where students are even more susceptible to the junk food outside the school gate.

Schools could be supported by a standardised healthy food policy, which could be tailored to suit their needs and strengths. Advertising of fast food needs stronger regulation, and the concentration of fast food and convenience stores, particularly around schools, must be addressed. Through ongoing workshops, residents have outlined a number of ideas to strengthen the local food system at a community level.

Study participants included high school students, people who worked in health promotion, local food retailers, kaumātua and parents. The study was part of a larger Health Research Council-funded project to explore barriers and enablers to improve children’s fruit and vegetable intake.

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