Schools and young people ‘hold the key’ to turning pupils away from fast food

Schools and young people ‘hold the key’ to turning pupils away from fast food

Wendy Wills, professor of food and public health and director of the Centre for Research in Primary and Community Care at the School of Health and Social Work, comments on recent calls to ban junk food advertising to children.

The call, from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, to ban fast food outlets operating within 400 metres of schools sends an important message to young people and families about the importance of limiting fast food as part of an overall healthier diet. Unfortunately, I doubt it would work, for a number of reasons.

Young people from poorer backgrounds are more likely to walk or cycle past food outlets on the way to or from schools, compared with pupils from more affluent backgrounds. This opportunity is associated with a greater likelihood of purchasing food or drink so there is no doubt that access to food outlets is important when considering how to improve the diet of young people.

However, many young people access food before, during or after school at retail outlets far further than 400m from their school, with some resorting to running during their lunch break to ensure they access the food they want. Food high in fat, salt or sugar is not only sold at fast food shops; supermarkets attract pupils with meal deals and other marketing promotions meaning a group of friends can purchase a multi-pack of donuts for example, at a price that appeals to them.

So banning fast food takeaway shops near schools will do little to address this broader issue of where young people buy their food and drink. Independent retailers, in particular, understand their school-aged pupils’ preferences, which are often to buy something that fills them up quickly at a price they can afford. Many from lower income families want their money to stretch as far as possible so they are canny consumers when it comes to finding the best value chips, crisps or soft drinks. This is not the food and drink any of us working within public health would like young people to consume but the reality is that most teenagers prioritise spending time with their friends rather than avoiding food or drinks that should not be eaten regularly as part of a healthy diet.

Schools can do a lot to help – basic things such as ensuring tables and chairs in the cafeteria are not broken; providing fresh jugs of water; not pushing young people outside once they have eaten and taking the time to find out what pupils want to eat and drink. These issues come up time and again in research and still many schools find it difficult to consult with young people about improving the food and dining environment in a way that will appeal to pupils. The big companies with contracts to provide food and drink in schools are increasingly willing to spend time co-producing strategies with young people and I would urge school governors, head teachers and in-house catering staff to prioritise working with contract caterers to use innovation and consultation to persuade young people that school is the cool place to eat.

With regard to the banning of fast food outlets within 400m of schools, if this kind of regulation is seen as important then it would need to be extended – to ban all food outlets within an 800-1000m radius of schools, otherwise the effect will be minimal.