'No fry zones' outside schools will do fat lot of good in tackling obesity
ONE of my most vivid memories of school was the tantalising aroma that wafted from the local chipper across the road every day at lunch hour.
Alas I was never able to indulge as I lived around the corner and had to go home for my dinner. But I was always envious of my classmates who got to queue up for their "single" – a grease-stained brown paper bag containing vinegar-soaked chips.
That was 35 or so years ago and there wasn't the same talk as there is now about obesity amongst our young people. Children were far healthier then than they are now – takeaways or not.
Today every village and town in Ireland has at least one takeaway, employing one or two people. The bigger towns have several, including Chinese takeouts, McDonalds, Burger Kings and Super Macs – many within shouting distance of a schools.
It seems now that this national institution, the chipper, is under threat. Children's Minister Frances Fitzgerald and Planning Minister Jan O'Sullivan have announced that new planning regulations are to be implemented to allow for 'No Fry Zones' around Irish schools to keep children away from fast-food outlets.
Existing fast-food outlets won't be affected unless they have to re-apply for planning.
Local authorities in Lucan, Co Dublin; Greystones, Co Wicklow; and Cork city have already moved on fast-food operations near schools and playgrounds following submissions from health campaigners, parents and councillors.
This drastic move comes amid mounting concern over spiralling levels of obesity, diabetes and high-blood pressure among Irish children.
The facts are frightening. One in four Irish children is overweight, with one in every 14 classified as obese, according to results of the most recent The Growing Up In Ireland study.
The figures are significantly higher for girls than for boys, with almost one in three female children – 30pc – qualifying as overweight or obese. The equivalent figure among boys is 22pc.
And the recently published Children's Lifestyle Study, ranked as one of the most detailed examinations of the diet and lifestyle habits of Irish primary schoolchildren ever conducted, found soaring high-blood pressure levels among 9-11 year olds because of their weekly reliance on fast-food.
The study showed that 5pc of children do not eat any breakfast before school, while 15pc are treated to a takeaway more than once a week by their parents.
More than 50pc of the children surveyed were found to have salt intakes far in excess of the recommended daily allowance of 5g because of their reliance on fast food. Worse still, 12pc of parents admitted that their children refuse to eat fruit, with 13pc declining to eat vegetables.
It seems to me that the problem of child obesity and bad diet extends far beyond the school-gate chipper. Implementing a "no fry zone" is good PR for ministers O'Sullivan and Fitzgerald, and is a clever ploy to give the impression that the Government is taking action to reverse the frightening decline in our children's health.
But it is easy to see through the cracks in this scheme, which leaves itself wide open to criticism.
Apart from threatening the livelihood of hundreds of chipper owners around the country, this is surely discriminatory as there are many more "fry zones" apart from takeaways near local schools.
Practically every local shop and supermarket now has a deli and hot food counter, stuffed with fried chicken, potato wedges, and the makings of massive, calorific sandwiches. The breakfast roll has not gone away, you know.
These foods pose as much of a threat to the health of our schoolchildren as does the food served in a local chipper. Should they be banned, too, if they are near schools and playgrounds?
And what about the corner shop near the school with shelves stacked with crisps, chocolate and sugar-fuelled fizzy drinks which kids love to snack on?
Will the "no fry zones" include them? You can be sure they won't.
Can you imagine also one of the big fast-food chains who happen to be located near schools (and I could name a few in Dublin) being told when their planning licence is up for renewal that sorry, they have to relocate because they are in a "no fry zone"?
There is little point in implementing this plan without ensuring that there is a healthy alternative offered to our schoolchildren either in school canteens or in their lunch boxes.
Would the Government not be better putting resources into educating schools and parents on nutritious and fat-free foods? The "no fry zone" rule won't stop parents from reaching for the more convenient, less healthy and often cheaper foods to stuff in the kids' lunch boxes.
Targeting the local chippers is not the answer to the nation's alarming child-health and obesity issue. The Government has to dig deeper than this. The "no fry zone" won't fly in my opinion.