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Improving diets: health-by-stealth

The UK has the highest rate of childhood obesity in Western Europe and the NHS is feeling the strain, with diet-related diseases costing around £4.2bn each year. The effectiveness of conventional approaches to prevention, namely social marketing and community-based interventions, is questionable, often failing to make an impact with those most at risk. We have achieved greater awareness – as a nation we collectively feel guilty for not eating our five-a-day – but there is a huge gulf between knowing what’s good for us and doing what’s good for us. We Are What We Do (WAWWD), a not-for-profit behaviour change company, aims to tackle this gap with a fresh, new approach.

Nick Stanhope, CEO of We Are What We Do says, “what we see from our work… is that there are strong underlying forces in mainstream culture that line up to make everyday life almost inevitably unhealthy.”

Fast Food Birmingham_credit Finn Taylor2Food deserts are an uncomfortable paradox of the developed world. How is it that we have a monopoly on the global food market, yet in deprived areas many people still struggle to access affordable, healthy food? Major retailers constantly drive down prices by selling us cheap, fast food, full of empty calories and negative nutritional value. Clever marketing, designed to trigger our emotional responses to food, convinces us that a product is worth consuming. Consumers need the determination of an athlete, and the self-control of a saint, to fight against the daily barrage of advertising, cheap deals and misleading health labels. In these obesogenic environments, physical activity campaigns seem futile – the weekly 150 minutes of recommended exercise would only work off a quarter of a Domino’s pizza.

Ella Wiggans, Account Director at WAWWD says, “we started to notice that high streets in low income areas were becoming dominated by cheap fast food outlets.” So they decided to tackle the issue with an enterprising approach – by creating their own chicken shop.

WAWWD initially partnered with Create London to develop a pilot in Newham, a borough of London with the 5th highest childhood obesity rate in the UK and the highest prevalence of diabetes. The healthy school food movement isn’t working in Newham, where only 15% of students eat at school canteens. When sixth-formers eat out, they step into a toxic food environment, where fast food outlets are clustered around secondary schools. WAWWD’s research discovered that a fast food outlet within 160m of a school is associated with at least a 5.2% increase in obesity rates among 15-16 year olds.

It’s not just about the food, though. Fast food outlets, particularly chicken shops, provide a social space for young people. The problem is, chicken shops are also associated with littering, anti-social behaviour and poor animal welfare.

WAWWD teamed up with street food caterer, Giles Smith, to devise a solution – Box Chicken, an alternative outlet in Forest Gate serving healthy, environmentally responsible lunches and after school snacks for four weeks.

Giles Smith of Box Chicken next to his van

WAWWD never underestimate the impact of branding and design. Box Chicken came in the form of a bright red van with a brand identity that mimicked the fast food outlets they opposed. Whilst Box Chicken’s key remit was to be healthy and environmentally sustainable, you won’t find any mention of its healthy or green credentials on any of the Box Chicken marketing.

Ella explains their health-by-stealth approach, “we didn’t want it to be seen as ‘the healthy food van that’s good for you’. Box Chicken had to be independent, not the school or parent-endorsed option, because that’s not appealing to young people. We wanted it to be the freely chosen option.”

“Branding is important, but there are other factors that affect where young people choose to eat – location, speed of service, if their friends are going and how friendly the service is.” says Ella. “We altered the menu to make it more appealing to young people, and made sure the prices were similar to our competitors.”

Compared to an original recipe meal at KFC, a Box Chicken meal and 200ml of orange juice has 60% fewer calories, 85% less fat, 70% less salt, and 20% less sugar, plus 2.5 portions more vegetables.

Animal welfare is important too, but there were cultural factors to be taken into consideration. “We stipulated that the chicken had to be RSPCA Freedom Food certified, but we realised quite soon that it also had to be halal because of the groups we were catering for. Unfortunately there’s very little crossover between the two, because of how the animal is slaughtered.” In the second phase they’ll be working with the British Poultry Council to help caterers source the most ethical meat to suit their clientele.

Box Chicken London_credit Finn TaylorThis first phase of the Chicken Shop was a success, with 1,362 portions sold, a quarter of which was to students. The feedback was very positive – 95% of the student diners agreed the food was tasty, 76% agreed that it was good value and 90% wanted Box Chicken to continue trading in Forest Gate.

The Chicken Shop pilot has proved that there’s room in the fried chicken market (estimated to be worth £15-20bn) for healthy eateries. The second phase of the project will roll out the Box Chicken model across London.

Right now they’re on the hunt for more street food vendors to tempt young people with their mouth-watering meals. WAWWD acts as a central hub for vendors, providing training, support and help to find a pitch. The Sustainable Restaurant Association will be assisting traders to meet their sustainable catering standards for sourcing, packaging and waste management.

Create Jobs London are going to be helping unemployed young people learn the tricks of the trade by working alongside the traders, training the next generation of caterers to keep the mission of good, affordable food alive long after the project finishes. The long-term hope is that other fast food outlets will eventually emulate this more ethical business approach to keep up with the competition.

Camden, Newham and Tower Hamlets Councils are already on board for phase two and they’re looking for more councils who want to help shift food choices for young people.

The key to Chicken Shop’s success and effectiveness is that they work with existing market forces instead of against them. With the co-ordinated efforts of street food caterers and local councils, this enterprising approach has the potential to create a better food landscape for our young people.

If you’re interested in getting involved, We Are What We Do would like to hear from you. Contact ella.wiggans@wearewhatwedo.org to find out how you can make a difference.

Photographs by Finn Taylor

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