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Fast food v councils: the battle for hearts, minds and bellies

The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) has just finished hearing submissions in a case against McDonald’s opening an outlet in the town of Tecoma. The case is part of a growing trend of…

The combination of more access and busier lifestyles has likely contributed to increasing consumption of fast food. Ben Weston

The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) has just finished hearing submissions in a case against McDonald’s opening an outlet in the town of Tecoma. The case is part of a growing trend of councils recognising the insidious impact of fast food on their communities and refusing permission on public health grounds.

It was brought by the multinational fast-food corporation after Yarra Ranges Shire Council declined to grant the company a planning permit to build. The campaign against the proposal was spearheaded by the local Tecoma Village Action Group and their efforts resulted in over 1,100 individual objections being sent to the council.

Our changing diets

Rates of obesity in Australia and many other developed nations have increased rapidly over recent decades. And unhealthy diets that include too much energy-dense fast food is a key contributor to the growing prevalence of obesity, diabetes and other adverse health conditions in both adults and children.

In 2009-10, Australian Bureau of Statistics data showed that the average Australian household spent over $30 a week on fast food and takeaway items. That means each household spent over $1500 a year on fast food, an increase of over $7 a week from 2003-04.

We know that many factors influence the food we choose to purchase and consume. Busier lifestyles, more working parents, and longer working hours all play a role. But beyond individual factors, we suspect the number and type of food stores in our neighbourhood also contribute to food purchasing decisions.

Fast-food outlets mapped by residents of a district in East London. Mile End Residents

Access = consumption?

Fast-food stores are now more accessible than ever. And the combination of more access and busier lifestyles has likely contributed to increasing consumption of these products. While the benefit of fast food and takeaway meals is that they allow us to achieve more in our day, such consumption comes at a cost to our health.

Major fast-food companies consider a number of things when choosing the location of new outlet, including the population characteristics of an area, ease of access, and the visibility of the proposed site (for instance, whether it is on a main road). As a result of such considerations, a number of fast-food outlets are often located in close proximity to each other. And we often see neighbourhoods with large numbers of fast-food outlets.

Researchers and policy-makers are increasingly paying attention to the placement of fast-food and takeaway outlets in low-income neighbourhoods and near schools. The location of new stores is of interest because of the poorer health observed in low-income neighbourhoods and a recognition of how important it is for children to be making healthier lifestyle choices.

Although there’s increasing recognition that the neighbourhood we live in influences health behaviours, planning laws often don’t recognise this. Traditionally, proposals for development can only be opposed on planning grounds, for instance, how the development would impact aesthetics, signage, crime, parking, and traffic.

Healthier food environments

Internationally, there are a number of recent examples of the use of planning laws to limit the amount of fast food that communities are exposed to. In 2008, the City of Los Angeles passed a bill prohibiting the opening of new fast-food restaurants in low-income areas.

And, in the United Kingdom, a local council banned hot food takeaway shops from opening within 400 metres of schools’ youth facilities and parks as a way to combat childhood obesity.

Shimelle Laine

There’s a growing push in Australia too, for planning agencies to actively consider the health consequences of new fast food outlets. A recent South Australian case highlighted the growing awareness of the impact local food environments on behaviours and health.

Residents of a western suburb in Adelaide tried to stop a McDonalds outlet being built within 200 metres of a primary school. This case was a rare instance of fast-food access being considered in terms of consumption behaviour in Australia.

But studies considering the link between fast-food access and consumption with an adequate level of detail are rare and the evidence inconclusive. So the appeal could not be upheld on these grounds. Instead, the council decision to grant a planning permit to McDonald’s was overturned on appeal because it was at odds with other planning requirements.

Like the Tecoma and Adelaide cases, future battles between councils, communities and major food retailers will most likely be referred to the courts and administrative tribunals for final decisions.

In the meantime, the quest to better understand how different individuals interact with their local food environment and how new developments lead to changes in eating patterns continues. Better evidence would ensure that the health impacts of such proposals are more strongly considered in the future.

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10 Comments sorted by

  1. Mal Adapted


    If fast food is banned in certain zones does that include cafes. Whole food shops sell lecithin and sweets, do they count too.

  2. Bruce Moon



    I suggest there is more to this than you cite.

    The response by Dale elucidates this point.

    The saddest part of this 'debate' is the mindless constrictions within land-use planning laws.

    For communities seeking not to have particular vendors - be it fast food, brothels, etc. - land-use planning laws MAY offer a very few or even only one window for rejection.

    The case here is not about detrimental health - though you focus on that - rather, that that is the only window by which…

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  3. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    "In 2008, the City of Los Angeles passed a bill prohibiting the opening of new fast-food restaurants in low-income areas."

    I can hear the poor now. "Thank you middle class! Thank you for making our decisions for us, as we're a bit dim! We could also do with some guidance on fashion, and how to spend our free time."

    1. Tracy Heiss

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to James Jenkin

      I agree with you James. I felt embarrassed at the overt paternalism. There is a very fine line between being concerned about choices people make for both individual and social health, and imposing moral will on to others, whether it be for 'their own good' or not. Personally, I resent others making choices for me while ever I live in a democracy. I extend that to all my fellow citizens. This is the same as pigovian tax mentality. Education and support is a fair strategy and I support it entirely. However, restricting choices for people is borderline fascism: "As Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive". C. S. Lewis.

    2. Leo Kerr


      In reply to James Jenkin

      yeah me too ..... no tax on ciggies, no seatbelts, no speed limits, no restrictions on booze, legalise all drugs and let's get rid of gun control laws too cos I want an AK... go Mackers

    3. Anthony Nolan

      logged in via email

      In reply to James Jenkin


      I've found a great website for you called the 'failed state index':

      It's a list of countries where, because of the absence of government, bureaucracy, rules, regulations or an educated middle class, someone like you could be absolutely free from the fascist tyranny of other people's paternalism.

      The top three, in order, are: Somalia, Congo (DR), Sudan. Afghanistan comes in at 6 and Yemen at 8.

      Bonne chance et bon voyage.

    4. Jenna Cowie


      In reply to James Jenkin

      I understand what is being said... but education and support are not enough. There is so much education out there but the environment does not support people. We may look at policy-makers and say they are paternalistic and taking away people's choice... but fast food companies take away much of people's choice too. Everyone likes food that tastes good. Fast food companies exploit that to the point of making us ill. Even with education, it is difficult to make the decision to choose the healthy option, because less-healthy food is cheap, convenient and satisfying.

      We forget that food businesses are made up of people, people just like us. Those people make the decision that they will try to market unhealthy food to make themselves a lot of money. Their purpose is to get people to buy as much of it as possible, so that they can make money.

      They're the ones betraying their own kind, not the local council.

  4. Anthony Nolan

    logged in via email

    It's not just the quality of the food and the issue of obesity at stake. Many people, having watched the McLibel Case (linked below) have concluded that McDonalds is a bad corporate citizens. Its a bully. In an era when decent people are increasingly and acutely aware of what bullying is, the damage it does and how to fight it then the corporation is not wanted as a neighbour. This is a matter of moral judgement as much as it is of dietary knowledge. These bad corporate citizens are increasingly being held to account and told "we don't want you".

  5. Peter Hewson


    I must admit that as I see the regular opposition to McDonalds (disclosure: I like their hot cakes) I also see, regularly, local small businesses seeking protection by stealth. In the an area near me that has long resisted McDonalds coming to town there are any number of takeaways, pizza shops (delivering to homes: you don't ever have to walk to the car to get a mega load of fats) and assorted 'milkbars' etc and certainly the usual array of obese citizens.

    If fast food is insidious then wyh are…

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  6. John Zigar

    Engineer, researcher

    I am getting sick and tired of the 'nanny state' where things such as obesity are highlighted just because there's a trend now to do so. When I was growing up, I was taught not to point or make fun of 'fat' people. And I never did.

    I was skinny for over 43 years until I married someone who liked to cook. I am now overweight – but not obese. Every time I go to the doctor(s), the first thing I get is a lecture that I am overweight, that I was risking my health and would end up with a stroke, diabetes…

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