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It’s fast food central near Henderson Intermediate School. Located on Lincoln Road in West Auckland, the route to and from school for many students involves walking past an array of fast food outlets. Within 500 metres of the school there is a Burger King, McDonalds, Burger Fuel and Sal’s pizza. There is the local fish and chip shop. A bit further down the road is a KFC. All vying for the students’ cash. Burger King even has an enclosed basketball hoop as further enticement for this age group.

Deputy Principal Debbie Wylde says it is hard to encourage the students to make healthier choices with their money.

“It is common for many of our families to give their children lunch money for the week. We have a school canteen which provides healthy choices as well as pies and sausage rolls. However, many students save their money to spend after school at the fast food outlets.

“Often students also spend on their way to school in the morning. I regularly stop students bringing in large fizzy drinks from McDonalds onto our school grounds as we are a water only school,” says Wylde.

And it doesn’t stop there. The rise of Uber Eats has increased the availability of fast food.

At a recent series of West Auckland community workshops aimed to tackle the problem, one participant said, “My teenage son gets Uber Eats delivered to his bedroom window – how can I compete with that?”

“When I open the [Uber] app in this neighbourhood there are 117 places that can deliver me food in 20 minutes and none of them are a healthy choice,” said another.

The workshops – facilitated by the University of Auckland and Healthy Families Waitākere – were part of an initiative to make West Auckland’s food environment healthier.

Attended by residents and community leaders, participants identified a number of barriers to children eating the Ministry of Health’s recommended fruit and vegetable daily intake of 5+ A Day. And top of the list was the high density of fast food outlets and the high volume of fast food advertising and promotion.

Other barriers included the high cost of fresh produce in comparison to fast food, parents having little time for food preparation, and declining cooking skills and knowledge.

A study based on the workshops is published in scientific journal PLOS ONE. Study participants included high school students, people who worked in health promotion, local food retailers, kaumātua and parents. The study was part of a larger Health Research Council-funded project to explore barriers and solutions to children’s fruit and vegetable intake.

Co-author and Healthy Families Waitākere systems innovator, Michele Eickstaedt, says participants identified two barriers that were outside of their control: the toll of low-income work on health, and the density of fast food outlets with pervasive advertising and signage in their neighbourhoods.

“Parents said they work multiple low-wage jobs, and are bound by inflexible hours. This leaves them with little time to cook meals, leading to a lack of cooking skills and knowledge within the household, which inevitably leads to poor health outcomes and increased rates of preventable chronic disease.”

Participants also said that families with low household budgets are more likely to prioritise satiety – feeling full – over nutrition.

“School principals are telling us students are walking in the front gates with breakfasts of $5 fried chicken and chip combo’s, purchased from fast-food outlets just outside school gates. A meal like this provides satiety, but leaves their brains ill-equipped for their day in the classroom.”

One study participant remarked, “How do you change what is sold right outside the school? I have a lot of respect for the shop owners – we all grew up knowing them – but what they’re selling is not good for our kids.”

The number of children eating enough fruit and vegetables is in steady decline across Aotearoa. For the past three years, the New Zealand Health Survey has found half of children aged 2–14 years (50 per cent) do not eat enough vegetables (two serves a day for pre-schoolers, three serves for 5-14 year-olds). Fruit and vegetable intake is lower in the Auckland region, where only 42 per cent of children meet the recommended ‘5+ A Day’, and even lower among non-European children and children living in areas of high deprivation.

Study lead Dr Sarah Gerritsen, a research fellow from the University of Auckland’s School of Population Health, says eating healthy is costly.

“Earlier research conducted here found that, on average, eating a healthy diet is more expensive than an unhealthy diet, particularly when takeaways are included. And while it is possible to eat a healthy diet for the same price, this requires more time and cooking skills.”

Dr Gerritsen backs the participants’ call for government regulation of the fast food sector to address advertising standards and outlet density.

“Communities cannot tackle these systemic issues on their own – they can’t limit advertising or prevent more fast food outlets from opening in their neighbourhoods,” she says.

The Fruit in Schools programme is currently only available to decile 1 and 2 primary and intermediate schools, but Gerritsen would like to see it expanded to more schools, including high schools.

“Schools could be supported by a standardised healthy food policy, which could be tailored to suit their needs and strengths. Advertising of fast food needs stronger regulation, and the concentration of fast food and convenience stores, particularly around schools, must be addressed.”

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