Mapping a way out of childhood obesity
Researchers are mapping local 'food environments' to show the relationship between income, where you live and obesity. The FT meets the people using this data to help change shopping and eating habits
Produced, filmed and edited by James Sandy; additional filming by Petros Gioumpasis; motion graphics by Russell Birkett; map data provided by Guy's and St Thomas' Charity
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Childhood obesity is on the rise, and with it long-term conditions like diabetes and heart disease that can plague adult health. But maps like these could help us turn the tide by helping us understand how influences from our environment shape what we buy and eat.
Junk food is in the spotlight in many places where children and families spend their time.
The reality is that unhealthy food is sometimes much cheaper and much more available, especially in areas of low income.
It's not only schools, it's not on at home. Children may hang around with their friends around the schools, so the environment around schools is extremely important.
Researchers at Guy's and St Thomas' Charity are gathering social, demographic, and economic data at the neighbourhood level and then mapping it against obesity rates across two London boroughs. The result is a clear picture of what's really behind childhood obesity numbers.
Most people think that childhood obesity is about poor parenting and a lack of individual willpower, when rather this is a societal issue. Kids from a lower income background are about three times more likely to be obese than kids from a wealthier background. Indeed, when you plot childhood obesity on a map, it tracks one to one with areas of lower average income.
Healthier food costs more than unhealthy food. But that's not the only reason income and obesity are so closely linked. Those who earn less have less access to transport so they're more reliant on the shops nearest to home. And because some shops stock more healthy food than others, the type of shop available on people's doorsteps will determine what they can buy. Even in neighbourhoods where household incomes are roughly the same.
In Peckham Rye, 65 per cent of shops were displaying fresh produce, whereas it was 23 per cent in Camberwell Green. I guess that's just one example of how one area might have an abundance of nutritious food versus unhealthy and another might have the reverse. Which again, will be one factor driving a difference in child obesity rates. And if compared them again to an area which had higher average income, you'd probably see an even bigger change in the food options available.
Where fresh food just isn't an option for the poorest families, local schemes can be supported to make it more accessible and affordable.
Guys and St Thomas' Charity approached us because we work with local children's centres to identify families who could benefit from free vouchers to go and buy more fruit and veg.
For one voucher you get two mango, like one pound. We accept that as a currency. So just bring one voucher. We give you two mango. And it's really good.
We eat more fruits and vegetables daily so that's the best advantage of the voucher.
We're seeing around about 65 per cent increase in the amount of meals that people cook from scratch using the raw ingredients that they can buy here from the market. So that means they're eating less unhealthy food, they're spending more time cooking and eating together as a family, and all of that is to help them and benefit them in the long term.
Providing easier access to fresh food will work for some neighbourhoods but not all of them. Another data set reveals where parents are working the most hours over a given week. Time pressure affects almost every household but for some it can be the last hurdle that prevents parents cooking healthy meals at home.
If you're time constrained and you have less time to travel to that supermarket, is the beef more further away from your home to outsource healthier foods. You also don't have time to cook at home. So you will rely on ready-made meals, on things that you can easily ????? by the end of the day, if you're working two shifts. And again, this is going to impact more disproportionately the households on lower incomes.
Healthier takeaways could soon offer more nutritious meals for homes where fast food has become a necessity rather than a luxury. But changing what kids eat at home can only help so much. Children buy their own food before and after school. And in many cases, this is where they're most at risk from unhealthy influences on our high streets.
If you take the bus home from school, where the bus stop is might be where you also socialise with people which might be where you also have something to eat. So whatever happens to be there providing food in an attractive way really influences what you eat there.
Teenagers, particularly in the bit of London where we work, don't have a great deal of spaces to hang out. Fast food takeaways are a place where teenagers hang out. So that's another area to focus on, as well. So these are all the different parties, different partners, that we need to be involved.
Reining in unhealthy advertising and providing more safe spaces for teenagers after school would mean redesigning the towns and cities we live in. It's a massive task that won't be possible without government intervention. But there's already evidence of how small design tweaks can change shopper behaviour, particularly in the grocery stores and supermarkets where families spend the majority of their food budgets.
Chocolates, things that are bad for you are really the things that you see first when you go into a corner shop. So those are the things that pop up first to your mind. So they are going to influence your decisions. You do really struggle to find a healthy product. Sometimes its shelved at the back and it's not at your height, it's not really at the bottom or at the top. So you know, your access to not only it's less salient visually, but also it's harder for you to reach out for those things.
If they come to pick up nuts or the salt free on the top, it's solid on the bottom. But it keeps improving sales, specifically for the cereal box. So when we change what's here, the sales nearly 50 per cent up. You got to keep trying to do it. I lost it, still I make money so I'm happy to do that.
The results from these schemes could persuade big businesses and policymakers to take action against childhood obesity at a national level. If that's by changing our urban environments to make healthy food the easiest option, data could be the tool to show us how.