No More Fries With That

To reduce American waistlines, reduce access to fast food near schools

With 60 million adults falling under its label, obesity has reached crisis levels in the United States. Perhaps most alarmingly, 12.5 million children are overweight, putting them at an increased risk for a host of diseases in adulthood, including diabetes, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, and certain forms of cancer. These risks do not affect personal health alone—the costs of obesity to the U.S. economy have been estimated at over a hundred billion dollars.

Clearly, while raising awareness and educating the public is important, a much more targeted policy is necessary to effectively combat childhood obesity. Radical as it may sound, the government should consider implementing a law that prohibits fast-food restaurants around public schools.

A recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research provides promising data to back up such a policy change. Conducted by economists at the University of California and Columbia University, the decade-long study found that high-school freshmen who attended school within a block of fast-food restaurants were markedly more likely to be obese than those whose schools were farther away when adjusted for variables like income and race. Similar results applied when researchers tracked obesity rates before and after the opening of a new fast-food outlet in the area.

Such a study appears to suggest at least one promising avenue of confronting youth obesity—changing zoning laws to prevent fast-food restaurants from opening near schools. By reducing access to unhealthful foods, schools can at least promote nutritious choices during school hours. Indeed, there is precedent within schools themselves, where soft drinks have often been eliminated from vending machines and more healthful options have been introduced in the school cafeterias.

Naturally, this proposal would not meet with universal approval, especially since students are not the only customers to whom these restaurants cater. Restaurateurs argue that such a policy would be unfair and harm the local economy by pushing out profitable business. Lawmakers, however, must adopt a longer-term view. In 2000, the cost of treating diseases resulting from obesity—measured in insurance costs, Medicare, and Medicaid—came to the grand sum of $117 billion. These are costs that come back to affect all Americans in the form of rising insurance premiums and a struggling health-care system and are enough to outweigh short-term business profit.

Certainly, merely eliminating fast-food restaurants around schools is not enough—education about healthful eating habits and exercise is absolutely critical in reducing obesity rates among youth in the United States. But removing combo meals from daily lunches is certainly a step in the right direction. Several surgeons general in the last century took an aggressive stance on smoking; obesity is a similar major public health hazard and thus deserves a similar treatment. Helping students opt for cafeteria salads over chicken nuggets is an excellent place to start.

Bilal A. Siddiqui ’11, a Crimson editorial writer, is a molecular and cellular biology concentrator in Winthrop House.