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

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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