Sunday 26 May 2024

Health fears as Auckland drowns in fast food swamps Auckland is drowning in a sea of junk food, with residents spending more than $1 billion annually on fast feeds and takeaways. Experts warn the city faces a looming health crisis, as Sapeer Mayron and Hannah Martin report. In February 2018, some Aucklanders queued up for 36 hours to be there when Aotearoa’s first-ever Krispy Kreme opened in Manukau. Youth worker Chillion Sanerivi​ saw no cause for celebration. Rather, he started a private boycott against the brand. “It was for me, it wasn’t to make a statement to anyone else. It was like, I am not going to endorse this type of food when we are already swamped and flooded with a variety of unhealthy choices,” he says. “I’d had enough.” Growing up, the threat of diabetes loomed large for Sanerivi, who is a youth innovation manager for The Cause Collective​, and co-founder of the south Auckland youth movement Do Good Feel Good​. His grandmother succumbed to the disease. So did several of his mother’s siblings. Those who are alive are managing their diabetes. Before she died, his mother grilled into him the importance of avoiding this curse. So he knows what it means to watch his eating and keep his body running as it should - and how hard that can be when his neighbourhood is saturated with the wrong options. More deprived areas tend to have a greater number of outlets and a higher annual spend compared to the least deprived areas. “It’s like when you go to Las Vegas, and it’s flooded with lights - ‘pick me, come to this casino’. It’s everywhere, it’s in your face.” Tackling the immensity of south Auckland's food swamps seems impossible even for the optimistic youth of Do Good Feel Good, Sanerivi admits. “Everyone knows the issue, but we’re still adding to the problem by allowing businesses to offer these unhealthy foods “Fast food has been here for such a long time. They are really embedded in our community; they [residents] can’t see what another healthy alternative could look like.” Take one year for example: in 2018, the three suburbs with the highest spending (excluding Auckland Airport and Queen St) were Albany, Manukau and Westgate, ranked seven and nine on the deprivation scale, which runs from one to 10. The data shows a sharp, 2-to-3-fold spike in sales per capita over deprivation level six (taken from the 2018 census) and above. In areas with low deprivation and the positive health outcomes that come with that, there is significantly less saturation of takeaways. The research specifically looked at the major fast food chains – including McDonald’s and KFC – and myriad other outlets mainly selling foods high in saturated fats, sugar and sodium, using a national industry classification as a guide. This is not a conclusive list of unhealthy food options in New Zealand. The research did not capture dairies, supermarkets, cafes or mid to higher-end restaurants, and it could not capture where consumers were actually from, only where the food was purchased. The data shows a sharp, 2-to-3-fold spike in sales per capita over deprivation level six (taken from the 2018 census) and above. In areas with low deprivation and the positive health outcomes that come with that, there is significantly less saturation of takeaways. The research specifically looked at the major fast food chains – including McDonald’s and KFC – and myriad other outlets mainly selling foods high in saturated fats, sugar and sodium, using a national industry classification as a guide. ‘Pehē pē 'e he lokua' ko e moana' pē hono ki'i tāputa' Pasifika dietician and public health expert Mafi Funaki-Tahifote​ has seen the impact of fast food on her community first hand. She’s been trying to tackle it for decades. What the Helen Clark Foundation has done with eftpos data, she and colleagues tried 20 years ago, using the same deprivation data against information from the yellow pages directory to map the spread and concentration of fast food outlets. They both found the same issue: where the poorer communities are, there are more takeaways and fast food, with fewer supermarkets and convenience stores full of healthy food to offset the junk. Over decades of nutrition work with Pasifika families and individuals, it’s clear to Funaki-Tahifote just how much those packed streets of food affect someone’s ability to kick their chicken-and-chips habit. They know what to do, and yet they go back to takeaways time and time again. Funaki-Tahifote is Tongan and most of her clients are too, and it helps to be able to speak in their mother tongue and get to the heart of the issues they’re facing with food and health. When she thinks about south Auckland’s food environment, she is reminded of a Tongan proverb about the fish that thinks their pond is the entire world. That is, until it reaches the moana and realises how much more there is out there. For south Aucklanders, takeaways can feel inescapable. You can see them from your pew at church, and smell what’s cooking through the window. They’re quick and easy, hot and tasty, and always reliable. It’s a David versus Goliath battle: Businesses selling fast food have a choice of where they set up shop, and communities have little to no say in the matter. And they’re choosing vulnerable communities to “fleece” more from those with less. It’s a “trap”, Professor of Population Nutrition and Global Health at the University of Auckland, Dr Boyd Swinburn​, says: a “vicious cycle” of trapping people in poverty; with poor food options leading to poor health outcomes. Swinburn says it’s a bandwidth issue: it takes time, energy and resources to navigate “obesogenic” environments, where neon-lit fast food restaurants dot each street corner in a suburb without even a supermarket. In areas of higher deprivation, people often work multiple jobs or have more members of the family working to pay for life’s essentials - they’re time-poor and materially poor, resulting in less bandwidth to make choices about what they eat. Even though it’s cheaper to buy chicken and vegetables than a fast food family-pack, that requires time, effort and planning: a luxury many living in more deprived areas don’t have, Swinburn notes. And it’s not just hitting people in their pockets. Our health is hurting, and it’s getting worse. HANNAH MARTIN • HEALTH REPORTER<

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