Welcome to fast food Britain, where there are more takeaways and restaurants than ever before, fuelling a health crisis – and in one area locals even want the council to step in
It’s the smell that hits you… freshly baked pasties from Greggs mingling irresistibly with the whiff of patties frying in the Burger King next door.
Welcome to fast food Britain, where there are more takeaways and restaurants than ever before, fuelling a health crisis linked to the nation’s poor diet. Here in Newcastle city centre, there are 27.5 fast food restaurants per 100,000 people, which makes it No1 in the chart of cities with the most fast food outlets.
It might be a small city – you can walk across it in around 20 minutes – but it also has two universities and the number of fast food outlets here increased by 9.4% in 2021 alone. In Croydon, 300 miles to the south, there has also been a proliferation of fast food outlets, with one for every 1,000 of the town’s 400,000 people.
This week our Fix Our Food campaign has highlighted the dangers of ultra-processed foods that increase the risk of cardiovascular disease by 24%, and visited “fresh food deserts” where it is impossible to buy fruit and vegetables. We have also told how the big supermarkets make eating well harder, with 33% of the multi-buy offers on unhealthy food and just 3% on fruit and veg.
Today, we learn how the people of Newcastle and Croydon feel about the unstoppable rise of fast food outlets. In Newcastle’s main thoroughfare, Northumberland Street, siblings Harry and Amber English are standing by as their younger brother crouches down against a shop eating a pastry. Harry, 20, a student at Durham University says: “There’s a lot of gentrification when it comes to the food chains that are here.
“Being a student it’s definitely harder to get fresh produce and have big meals all the time when you can pay a few pounds for a takeaway that will fill you up even more.” For 24-year-old Amber, who was born in Newcastle but has moved to London, fast food is convenient. She says: “I don’t finish work until 7pm and by the time I get home I’m exhausted so I’ll order something. It’s just easier.”
Sitting at the famous Grey’s Monument steps, surrounded by people eating, is 29-year-old Andy Page. He grew up in Newcastle and has seen a change with the rising number of fast food outlets. He says: “There’s a lot of fast food in a very small area. It’s just all about companies now trying to make their money. Every now and then I do have fast food. When I’m at work it’s just convenient and it does fill you up.”
Mum-of-two, Kelly Staines, 39, is standing outside Oodles, a popular new Chinese restaurant that opened in June offering a half-price menu to entice customers in. She says: “I agree that there is a huge growth in the amount of fast food restaurants around Newcastle. There’s takeaways on every street and there’s not much of a shopping atmosphere anymore, just a lot of food places.”
Heading further down Northumberland Street, you have to look out for the food delivery guys on their bikes, ringing their bells as they take meals to hungry clients. Other riders are parked at corners, leaning on their bikes waiting for their next request for a delivery. Trevor Robinson, 22, works at a fish and chip shop in the city and has seen first hand the increase in takeaway outlets and the impact of rising prices.
He says: “Everyone loves cod, and the price of fish has just sky-rocketed. Even the bag of potatoes we get has increased for us. There’s a lot of smaller fast food places coming in, as well as your bigger chains. The nightlife here is pretty iconic, so everywhere is open after the club’s shut until early morning. Just since Covid, there has been a lot more fast food places. But there’s no going back.”
In Croydon, residents are spoilt for choice when it comes to eating out. In George Street, fast food rivals Burger King and McDonald’s are right next to each other and a KFC is a one-minute walk from another American burger joint, Five Guys. Mum Maria Almedia, 51, says it is challenging to opt for healthy meals for her family when there are so many fast food restaurants to choose from.
She says: “I wish the council would implement healthier options nutrition-wise. It’s not good that fast food is the only option they have. As a mum, I find it hard to give the kids healthy food and a balanced diet outside the house. It’s a struggle, especially nowadays, to give them healthy food that is a good price – most of the time it’s cheaper to give them fast food.”
Nearby, Marlon Dawkins is on his lunch break, with a bag of chicken and chips for him and a colleague. The 38-year-old train company worker grew up in Croydon and has noticed big changes in the high street. He says: “It’s overwhelming how many fast-food restaurants there are. But it’s a low-income area so it’s understandable. A friend’s kids are so accustomed to chicken and chips shops that when they go they already know their order number by heart.”
Biologist Gift N Patrick, 37, passes by, eating a patty from one of the local markets. He says: “Some days I have to count the money I’m spending on food and I can’t always go to an ideal healthy place. Every day there seems to be new fast-food restaurants popping up but it’s up to us to choose to eat healthy.”
Since 2014, The Food Foundation have been encouraging healthy eating, trying to improve young people’s diets and keep them away from fast food. Advocacy Officer Shona Goudie says: “Fast-food takeaways are abundant across the UK, often selling cheap and convenient foods which are high in calories, fat and salt. Local authorities need to be better supported to use planning powers to prevent further proliferation of unhealthy fast-food outlets to help transform their town centres and high streets to make it easier for people to eat better diets.”
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