Junk Food City: Leeds’ takeaway addiction is a health timebomb

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LEEDS is in the grips of a junk food crisis which is risking the health of a generation of young people.

Severe concerns about the city’s collective health have led council bosses to consider capping the number of takeaways opening – especially near schools.

Some areas are food deserts - where there are no grocery stores and the only food available is takeaways

Dr Emma Boyland, lecturer and researcher in obesity

There are almost 800 takeaways and fast food joints in the city, and licensing bosses receive scores of new applications every year with little power to refuse them.

Research shows one in five adults in Leeds is classified obese, and more than a THIRD of children are overweight.

Experts say the availability and cheapness of takeaway meals is a key factor.

A panel of councillors recently heard the “unbridled proliferation” of takeaways was doing huge damage to the city’s health.

One health expert told the YEP: “Limiting takeaway numbers would be a good thing.

“People need support and better options being made available.”

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TACKLING THE TAKEAWAY TIMEBOMB

IF the old adage of ‘you are what you eat’ were true, then Leeds would be a mountain of chips, curries, pizzas and doner kebabs.

The city has almost 800 takeaways and fast food outlets - and our collective junk food addiction is taking its toll on our health.

According to research by Public Health England, one in every FIVE adults in Leeds is obese and more than a THIRD of 10 and 11 year olds are classified overweight.

Overall, the health of people in Leeds is “generally worse” than the England average. Experts say the availability and cheapness of takeaways is a key factor.

However work is now being done across Leeds to try and clamp down on the numbers of HFTs (hot food takeaways).

City bosses are also in dialogue with takeaway businesses, in a bid to forge a collective agreement to reduce the salt content in their offer.

A simple postcode search on a popular fast food website reveals that in some parts of the city, there are 150 or more businesses in the vicinity offering takeaway meals. Availability is highest in inner city areas like Harehills, Beeston and Armley, as well as the city’s student heartlands. On the opposite end of the scale, affluent areas have less availability of junk food on their doorsteps.

Campaigners and health inequality studies have long argued the links between economic deprivation and a junk food diet.

Dr Emma Boyland is a lecturer and researcher in obesity issues who is currently researching food marketing.

“There’s definitely a food environment issue,” she told the YEP.

“Some areas are food deserts - where there are no grocery stores and the only food available is takeaways.

“The aggressive marketing of fast food drawing people in is also depressing.

“Limiting the takeaway numbers would be a good thing. People need support and better options being made available.”

Councils currently have limited powers to restrict the types of food offers in an area, and decision makers are often loathe to be seen to be over prescriptive - or to demonise legitimate businesses. However there is some flexibility in planning laws which campaigners say should be exploited fully on public health grounds.

A recent Leeds City Council planning meeting heard that the authority is now taking a number of pro-active steps regarding the control, management and impact of HFTs. However it is the “cumulative impact” of takeaways that is of particular concern.

Councillor Colin Campbell, who sits on several planning committees on Leeds City Council, says current policy is “at best aspirational” and we need something that will help secure a “fundamental change in the retail balance” of some areas which have the most dense concentration of takeaways.

He is lobbying for the creation of a new policy document - a supplementary planning guide - which will strengthen the council’s ability to curb takeaway numbers based on health grounds.

Councillor Lisa Mulherin, Leeds City Council’s executive board member for health, believes the city does have too many takeaways.

“There are areas where we would like to see a reduction, around schools would be the key one,” she says.

“If you live in an area where there’s a parade of shops and it’s full of takeaways, and there is nowhere within a short bus ride or within walking distance where you can buy fresh fruit and vegetables, then it’s quite a challenge for someone on a low income to be able to go out and access good, healthy nutritious food.”

“We want to have more power to be able to do these things,” she adds.

“We are working very closely with colleagues in planning and licencing and transport on how we can use the public health principles to help people to have longer, happier, healthier lives, and to make that a much easier choice for people to make.

“If we can restrict takeaways around schools then that’s a step in the right direction.”

She explains that there is currently an ongoing conversation with takeaway owners across the city about how they might make their products a little healthier, by reducing salt.

“If you speak to one, they are thinking of their profit margins. It’s about talking to them together. If you can get all the businesses in an area to agree to do something, then you are on a different page.”

She notes that in a big city like Leeds, 800 takeaways might not seem like that many to some, and if they were distributed evenly across the whole of Leeds that could be plausible.

“We know there are high concentrations in certain areas,” she says.

“It’s like the conversations we have had about payday lenders, pawnbrokers, etc. We know that they are concentrated in certain communities where people already have worse health outcomes.”

She stresses that it’s not about wagging a disapproving finger, and choice - and moderation - remain key to the council’s message and work.

“It’s about enabling people to have a healthier choice as well as an occasional easy option when they get home late at night.”

Sisters Jane and Lucy Batham at the Tarte and Berry bakery in Farsley. PIC: Simon Hulme

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