Last month saw the unveiling of a study led by University of Auckland academics showing that the majority of urban schools are within 800 metres of a dairy or fast food outlet. The researchers concluded that, as we have an obesity problem, councils should regulate retail outlets near schools.
Despite the “shock horror” way in which this was reported in the news media, the proximity of schools to shops is not really a surprise. That’s because, in New Zealand, most schools have been built at the heart of a community, which is usually built around a cluster of shops. That cluster might include a dairy, petrol station, or even a deli or a chemist. These stores all sell a range of products from milk to flowers and other grocery items.
Given that we have an increasing problem with obesity, is it reasonable that the Government and local councils should step in to introduce new regulations on shops near schools? Does it really matter if the local dairy is forced to close, or a new one prevented from opening?
I think it does. It’s another small step on the slippery slope towards even more bureaucracy and regulation. And the impact is much larger than it first appears. What about the pharmacy and hardware shop that sell chocolate? What about the petrol station that sells ice cream? What about the café that sells milkshakes and slices of cake? What about the florist and the garden shop that sell small bags of fudge? What would our communities be like if we didn’t have small retail outlets selling a range of goods? It would be a world without convenience and colour.
Do we really want to live in a world where what retailers are allowed to stock and sell is highly regulated? I don’t think so.
Obviously, it’s really important that children are encouraged to eat well and exercise. Education’s a really important part of keeping our children well – but it’s not clear that putting new regulations in place will make a material impact to healthy eating and exercise – which, let’s face it, need to be strongly encouraged at home and school.
There are examples around the country where schools are working with local shops on specific initiatives – in places like Otaki and Hamilton; some stores have voluntarily agreed not to sell to students in uniform. More generally, most convenience stores sell fruit and bottled water as well as other options; products are being reformulated over time to become healthier; and the voluntary Health Star Rating scheme aims to allow consumers to make informed choices.
We live in a world where some schools have their kids sell chocolate as a fundraiser and allow lolly bags to be taken to school camps; Girl Guide groups sell biscuits; and families sometimes have dessert.
Education might be needed, but ultimately, banning shops from being located near schools isn’t going to solve issues about obesity.