Cluster Busters

Fast food near schools.


Fast food clusters may sound like the latest offering at KFC, but they're actually the latest hazard to be trumpeted in the American Journal of Public Health. "The concentration of fast-food restaurants around schools within a short walking distance for students is an important public health concern," a team of researchers declared in the journal's September issue. "It represents a deleterious influence in the food environment that may undermine public health efforts to improve nutritional behaviors in young people."

The researchers found that 80 percent of primary and secondary schools in Chicago are located within 800 meters of a fast food outlet (about a 10-minute walk) and 35 percent are only 400 meters away. "A significantly greater number of fast-food restaurants are located within a short distance from schools than would be expected if there were no spatial dependence," the authors reported.

Although the Center for Science in the Public Interest immediately cited the study as evidence that the "food industry targets children," the simplest explanation is that fast food restaurants tend to be located in commercial areas with many potential customers. There was no sign of fast food clusters around schools in "low-commercialization areas."

In any case, the researchers presented no evidence that having a McDonald's or Subway near school makes students fatter. They nevertheless closed their article by suggesting fast-food-free zones around schools to "remove noxious elements in the food environments that schoolchildren are exposed to every day"–and, incidentally, limit the lunch options of the adults who happen to work or shop nearby.