Should the government ban junk food near schools?
Last Friday, Jamie Oliver called for a crackdown on the selling of junk food near schools, arguing that it is completely at odds with the government’s investments to tackle childhood obesity. But is there really a causal link between fast food outlets near schools and childhood obesity?
Currie et al. (2010) directly investigate this. As they argue, the fact that fast food restaurants and obesity have both increased over time does not proof such a link. To explore this relationship, they use the exact geographic location of fast food restaurants in California, linked to data on 3 million school children, to explore whether schools’ proximity to a fast food restaurant affects pupils’ obesity rates. They show that fast food restaurants near schools significantly increase childhood obesity. More specifically, having a fast food restaurant within 0.1 mile of a school increases the probability of obesity by 1.7 percentage points (or 5.2%).
To explore the sensitivity of these analyses, they also study the effect of other (non-fast food) restaurants, but find no effects of these outlets on obesity. Furthermore, they investigate whether future fast-food restaurants are associated with today’s obesity. If it is, it would suggest that fast food restaurants may simply locate in areas where obesity is increasing independent of the restaurants. Their results show that only current locations matter.
These findings therefore support Jamie Oliver’s concern, suggesting the government should consider introducing policies to restrict fast food restaurants from opening near schools. In fact, some local authorities have already taken this approach. For example, the London borough of Waltham Forest will not give planning permission to new hot food takeaways if they are within 400 metres from a school, youth facility or park.
Jamie Oliver has had much success in convincing the government to improve the nutritional contents of school lunches. Recent research has shown that the new nutritional guidelines have not only improved the quality of school food (School Food Review; SFR), it also improved children’s exam results and reduced their absences (Belot and James, 2010). In fact, due to the benefits of school meals, Professor Terence Stephenson, chair of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, argues in Sunday’s Observer that academies and free schools may actually be damaging children’s health, as they are allowed to opt out of these nutritional guidelines.
Despite the benefits of school meals, their take-up is currently very low at around 43%, reduced from about 70% in the 1970s. In a recent study, I show that the main reason for this rapid decline was the introduction of two Acts of Parliament in 1980 and 1988, which increased the price of school meals, leading to a large proportion of pupils shifting to packed lunches. With school meals currently substantially healthier than the average packed lunch (SFR), the government should consider ways of increasing its take-up. One approach they have taken is to introduce free meals for all primary school pupils in England in their first three years. As the increased price of meals in the 1980s was the main driver for the drop in take-up, offering free meals to all children may again lead to an increase in their consumption. In addition, if alternative outlets, such as fast food restaurants, are simply not available near schools, pupils will not get tempted to swop their healthy school meal for some unhealthy fish and chips.