Our obsession with chicken shops

Earlier this year, I wrote about our early obesity research, through which we started looking at the way that the food landscape of modern Britain, particularly in poorer urban areas, generates unhealthy eating behaviours by default.

So toxic is this landscape, that the levels of recommended exercise just can’t possibly compete (150 minutes of moderate exercise a week for adults recommended, 4-5 times that required to walk off a Dominos pizza). With or without regular exercise, the nation is piling on pounds every year.

The role of personal responsibility within this landscape is not as described by many MPs and public health professionals. Everything about everyday food in much of modern Britain, from the way it is sourced, priced, located and marketed, does not provide meaningful choice. On paper, healthy choices exist, but culturally and practically, certain habits are the norm and beyond these are alternatives that seem destined to stay exactly that – alternative.

The response needs to keep coming from every direction and as quickly and profoundly as possible. If we want to make a dent on the damage being done, then we have to get right into the heartlands of daily eating habits – and this is where our obsession with chicken shops has come from.

Fried chicken shops are the new staple of British high streets. Along with betting shops, pound shops and loan shops, they are becoming one of the predominant features of urban landscapes. There are now more than 8,000 fast food outlets in the capital alone – one for every 1,000 Londoners, a number increasing around 10% every year.

Chicken shops are particularly common – fried chicken sales grew by 36% from 2003 to 2008 and the market continues to grow. While many might focus their attention on the big chains, independent shops represent four fifths of the fast food market (Allegra, 2009).

They are particularly prevalent in urban, deprived areas.

For example the London Borough of Newham, one of the three most deprived boroughs in London, has over 258 hot food takeaway outlets, of which 28% are fried chicken shops. All secondary schools in Newham are within 500m of a fast food outlet. In Tower Hamlets, there are 197 hot food takeaways and an average of 42 ‘junk food’ outlets per school. This compares to 25 per school in inner London as a whole.

We shouldn’t just be standing on the sidelines baying for closures and taxation. Yes, as some local councils have, the numbers of these ‘A5 takeaways’, especially near schools, should be limited. But, these shops are popular and everywhere for a reason – they sell cheap, tasty, filling food in spaces that are often the only place for young people to hang out in their community.

So, we want to see how we can harness this popularity and subtly shift behaviours and outcomes in these environments. To explore this, we’ve launched a two year research and do1.wawwd.infoelopment project that hopes to emerge with practical, proven ideas for fostering healthier fast food habits.

Is it inevitable that fast food shops sell very unhealthy menus? We don’t think so. And there glimpses of a better approach all over the place already, from independent shops that have adopted better practices through to chains like Subway that show that not everything has to be deep fried to be popular amongst teenagers.

Our first piece of work is a project in partnership with CREATE London, that will set up a month long mobile shop close to schools in Forest Gate in the London Borough of Newham. We already know lots about the eating habits of the sixth form students and we think that we can make a substantial difference to these pretty quickly and prove the need for and sustainability of something new in the landscape.