Hackney kids face growing obesity problem

Obesity is a growing problem among children in Hackney. Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Obesity is a growing problem among children in Hackney. Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis - Credit: © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Obesity has historically been considered a rich man’s disease with it being a problem associated with wealthy, rather than poor people.

Depictions of the poor in Victorian England are of people who are thin and scrawny. But, in an age of junk food and TV dinners, evidence in recent years has pointed towards obesity being linked to poverty.

Just two weeks ago junior health minister Anna Soubry said in The Daily Telegraph that there was a “propensity” for overweight people to come from “deprived backgrounds” and added that she could tell somebody’s background by their weight.

The youth minister would probably feel vindicated if she walked around Hackney.

The borough has a growing problem with childhood obesity – it ranks second in the country with 27 per cent of Year 6 children classified as obese – and just two years ago, Hackney was considered to be the second most deprived borough in the country in the Index of Multiple deprivation (IMD) commissioned by the Department of Communities and Local Government. Islington falls in eighth place.

The only bright spot is that adult obesity has decreased for two years in a row and currently stands three per cent below the national average at 21 per cent.

Hackney even has a dedicated bariatrics unit at Homerton Hospital, helping obese people who have no other options. For the last eight years, consultants have provided gastric bypasses, gastrectomies and gastric binding for those who are in dire need.

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The obesity problem – which cost the NHS North East London and the City an estimated £85.3million in 2007 and is projected to increase to £94.6million by 2015 – has been a priority focus for the NHS which has a range of programmes to tackle it.

Dr Lesley Mountford, joint director of public health, said: “Tackling obesity is one of our top priorities, as obesity can lead to people getting diabetes and heart disease and affect their overall wellbeing.”

“There are many factors that influence people’s weight, including individual behaviours, ethnicity and genetics, deprivation and the built environment and, importantly, the content of processed foods,” she said.

Most recently, Hackney Council’s children and young people scrutiny committee produced a draft report into childhood obesity in order to support a “whole-systems” approach to tackling the issue.

They investigated the effect that access to cheap food from fast-food takeaways has had in fuelling childhood obesity and have proposed that the council turn down planning applications from any future fast-food shop applications within 400 metres of a school.

Last year, the National obesity observatory (NOO) estimated that there are 253 fast-food outlets in Hackney – one per 870 residents.

Although council officers did not manage to establish actual figures, they found some preliminary evidence suggesting that many takeaways offer “child-sized portions at child-sized prices” which proves a big hit with schoolchildren. Most of these outlets were within 500 metres of a school.

If the decision is approved by cabinet later this month, it would help tackle one root cause of obesity – high calorie and nutrient poor diets – and would join a growing list of boroughs which are doing so.

Last November Islington, which is the eighth most deprived borough in the UK according to the IMD and is the 48th worst borough in the country for childhood obesity rates, implemented the ban on new fast-food outlets opening within 200 metres of a primary or secondary school in a bid to stem their growing childhood obesity rate. Although only 22 per cent of their Year 6 children are obese, the NOO estimated they had more fast-food joints – 139 for every 100,000 of the borough’s 194,080-strong population.

A policy officer for Hackney Council, who did not wish to be named, thinks that housing problems are a root cause.

She said: “The IMD consists of seven dimensions, and Hackney is improving in all seven areas except housing and environment. Housing problems can consist of overcrowding, houses in poor condition or homes without heating.

“The increase in house prices in the borough has lead to worsening affordability for many residents.

“This means that many residents are spending a large chunk of their income on housing and this means they have less money to spend on food.

“This affects the types of food they can afford. Most will choose low quality, high calorie food.”