Fast Food Nation: Purveyors Cluster Around Schools
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Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2005, 4 p.m. ET
Children's Hospital Boston
50% of Chicago schools have a fast-food restaurant within 5 minutes' walk
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Spatial mapping using databases of restaurant and school addresses shows that fast-food restaurants cluster themselves within a short walking distance of schools, according to a report in the September issue of the American Journal of Public Health. The investigators, led by Dr. Bryn Austin of the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at Children's Hospital Boston, are concerned that putting fast food so close to schoolchildren is undermining their nutrition and contributing to obesity.
Austin and her colleagues from the Harvard School of Public Health's Prevention Research Center compiled a comprehensive list of 613 fast-food restaurants in the city of Chicago, as well as a list of 1,292 public and private kindergartens, elementary schools, middle schools and high schools. Each restaurant and school was assigned longitude and latitude coordinates and census tract identification codes. Using statistical methods, the researchers quantified the distances between schools and restaurants and calculated the degree of clustering.
In half the city's schools, the nearest fast-food restaurant was 0.3 miles away, or just over a 5-minute walk. Seventy-eight percent of schools had at least one fast-food restaurant within half a mile, or about a 10-minute walk, and 35 percent within a quarter of a mile. Mapping showed significant clustering: 3 to 4 times more fast-food restaurants were within a mile of a school than would be expected had the restaurants located themselves without regard to schools.
"Our cities are saturated with fast food purveyors. Now we are finding that the concentration of fast food is even worse in school neighborhoods. This means that five days a week, we are sending our schoolchildren into environments where there is an abundance of high calorie, low nutritional quality, inexpensive food," says Austin. "Schools, parents, and policymakers need to take a more serious look at this issue."
"Cities need to take a more proactive role in ensuring that children in every neighborhood and every school have access to affordable fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains to create healthy nutritional environments," she adds. "Some cities and states, for example, support farmers' markets to help bring fresh produce into schools in urban areas. In the midst of an obesity epidemic, the food environment is crucial."
Nationwide, over the past three decades, fast-food retail sales have soared 900 percent, according to food industry sources. A previous study from Children's Hospital Boston, the Harvard School of Public Health and the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that almost a third of children and teens eat fast food on a typical day, consuming more calories, fat, and sugar and fewer fruits and vegetables.
The top ten fast-food restaurants in the Chicago study, accounting for 76 percent of the total, were McDonald's, Subway, Dunkin' Donuts, KFC, Burger King, Popeye's Chicken and Biscuits, Wendy's, Church's Chicken, Taco Bell, and White Castle.
The study was supported by a grant from the Centers and Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Steven Gortmaker of the Harvard School of Public Health was senior author.
Founded in 1869 as a 20-bed hospital for children, Children's Hospital Boston today is the nation's leading pediatric medical center, the largest provider of health care to Massachusetts children, and the primary pediatric teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. In addition to 347 pediatric and adolescent inpatient beds and comprehensive outpatient programs, Children's houses the world's largest research enterprise based at a pediatric medical center, where its discoveries benefit both children and adults. More than 500 scientists, including eight members of the National Academy of Sciences, nine members of the Institute of Medicine and 10 members of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute comprise Children's research community. For more information about the hospital visit: www.childrenshospital.org.
Harvard School of Public Health is dedicated to advancing the public's health through learning, discovery, and communication. More than 300 faculty members are engaged in teaching and training the 900-plus student body in a broad spectrum of disciplines crucial to the health and well being of individuals and populations around the world. Programs and projects range from the molecular biology of AIDS vaccines to the epidemiology of cancer; from risk analysis to violence prevention; from maternal and children's health to quality of care measurement; from health care management to international health and human rights. For more information on the school visit: www.hsph.harvard.edu