I was recently driving past a public high school during its lunch break when I witnessed a troubling sight. A hungry horde of teens was streaming out the doors of the school and looking for a place to eat. A quick glance about the area revealed their limited options: a McDonald's across the street or a Taco Bell a block further away. If those two options didn't appeal, there was always the local convenience store with frozen microwavable options. I wondered about the long-term consequences of allowing a fast food “restaurant” to open within walking distance of a school. Now, thanks to the work of economists at the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University, we have scientific evidence that fast food near schools results in student obesity. Could these findings be the beginning of a movement to ban fast food near our children's schools?
Sometimes it takes a detailed scientific study to prove what we already knew. This eight-year study looked at the weight of over three million school children and a million pregnant women. The researchers concluded that “among 9th grade children, a fast food restaurant within a tenth of a mile of a school is associated with at least a 5.2 percent increase in obesity rate” and for pregnant women “a fast food restaurant within a half mile of her residence results in a 2.5 percent increase in the probability of gaining over 20 kilos.” (full study results)
What is interesting about this study is that it provides culture jammers with a concrete, reasonable and accomplishable goal for improving the health of children. As the researchers point out, there is no discernible effect on obesity when the fast food restaurants are located further than 1/4 miles from the school entrance. We could see a substantial decrease in childhood obesity by simply moving fast food restaurants a mere 400 meters from schools.
There is historical precedent for this type of campaign. Anti-noise activists inspired by Theodor Lessing around the turn of the 20th century, for example, were successful in introducing clauses into city ordinances that require quiet within a certain distance of schools and hospitals. These laws continue to persist in the books in many cities across the States (including my own state, New York). In the States there is also a mandated “Drug Free Zone” around schools. And, according to the Los Angeles Times, LA already “has a one-year moratorium on new fast-food outlets in a 32-square-mile area of South LA.” (source)
A few vocal citizens in communities across the world can immediately decrease childhood obesity simply by stating the obvious: kids need healthy food. We can launch a movement for “Healthy Food Zones” within 400 meters of all schools. In these areas, only local restaurants that provide healthy options to children and students will be tolerated.