An increase in the supply of junk food around Flemish schools in recent years has led to heavier children, according to a large-scale study conducted by the Belgian health institute Sciensano on behalf of the Agency for Care and Health.
Researchers mapped out the food environment of all Flemish schools between 2008 and 2020 and learned that while the number of shops remained the same, shops that sell less processed products – such as fruit and vegetable shops and bakeries – made way for fast food chains and convenience stores.
“Our study shows that a higher concentration of unhealthy food offerings around schools negatively affects the weight status of our youth,” Sciensano reported.
The average primary school in Flanders currently has 3.8 convenience stores and 6.3 fast food restaurants within a distance of one kilometre.
The numbers are even higher for secondary schools, with 7.6 convenience stores and 12.7 fast-food restaurants within a one-kilometre radius.
Link between presence of fast food restaurants and BMI
The study showed a clear link between the presence of fast food restaurants and the average body mass index (BMI) of schoolchildren up to 12 years of age.
“The more unhealthy businesses there are in the neighbourhood, the higher the average BMI and the higher the percentage of overweight children,” said researcher Stefanie Vandevijvere.
For each additional fast-food, delivery or takeaway shop within 500 metres walking distance of the school entrance, the average BMI of pupils aged 6-12 rose by 0.057 in the year 2010-2011 and by 0.059 in the year 2015-2016.
Young people more susceptible to unhealthy food environments
Young children in particular seem to be susceptible to an unhealthy food environment.
“It takes more than campaigning to promote healthy food, it also takes policy,” said Vandevijvere, who points to other countries as examples.
In London, she explained, there’s a ban on takeaways around schools. South Korea prohibits the sale of unhealthy food within a radius of 200 metres around schools.
Flanders, too, should think about such interventions, according to the researcher.