Matt secondary schools with widespread levels of obesity. For

Matt Caraher // Secondary school pupils’ food choices around schools in a London borough: Fast food and walls of crisps.

Matt Caraher carried out his research to raise awareness about the high obesity levels accumulating in deprived areas because of the higher density of fast food outlets (Public Health England, 2015). His ”results were summarised under the five ‘A’s of Access, Availability, Affordability and Acceptability & Attitudes” (Caraher et al, 2016, pg.3 and 4). His overall argument is that obesity levels in young people is rapidly increasing due to the sensationalism of fast food. As Caraher mentions, people suffering from food poverty are more likely to be obese because they can only purchase cheap high street foods (Why food poverty persists, 2017). In the article, it states that ‘an estimated 22,000 (36%) children live in poverty in the borough and 36% of children aged 10-11 years old are also either overweight’ (Caraher et al, 2016, pg. 6).

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For this research, a multi method approach was used to obtain primary data. Although the geographical information system was a secondary piece of data, used to map the fast food outlets in the area and local secondary schools with widespread levels of obesity. For ethical procedures, Caraher requested consent from head teachers and parents to carry out in depth observations, around the fast food outlets and the focus groups, to gather data on pupil’s food choices. He protected the anonymity of pupils, schools and boroughs by labelling them as numbers. 

The advantages of the focus groups and interviews are that they collect rich, valid, qualitative data, that enables the researcher to observe the pupil’s food choices in their natural form. They don’t encourage deceit, so it will make pupils respect researchers honesty and reveal more about their opinions in the focus groups. The focus groups allowed pupils to be open and express their opinions without being restricted. This also enables group interaction, so the researcher can identify similarities and differences in pupil’s choices.

However, the Hawthorne effect can bias findings as pupils may alternate their behaviour since they know they’re being observed. Pupils included in the obesity statistic may feel stigmatized since they know that it is an unhealthy food choice, thus undermining the validity of results. Furthermore, another disadvantage is that the views collected in focus groups and observations can’t be generalised to the whole population. For example, children from deprived areas are exposed to more fast food outlets than children from affluent areas. Observations are also very time consuming and content analysis on a large scale, becomes very tedious.

Alternative methods Caraher could have used was unstructured interviews instead of focus groups so he could’ve gathered information on the mindset of pupils using the fast food outlets. For example, fast food outlets for some pupils can be for personal reasons such as outlets providing a sense of community and bonding over their commonality in food. Furthermore, it could have allowed Caraher to unravel pupil’s struggles, whether it be financially, because parents can’t afford home cooked food. It would’ve allowed him to ask specific questions to pupils that are on FSM’s to ask why they’d rather go out and spend money than obtain their FSM. Another systematic method could have been questionnaires. They could have been used to gather specific results about pupil’s choices quickly and much easier to analyse.

Caraher broke down his findings into the 5 A’s and analysed the reasons for his argument, deprived areas have a higher density of fast food outlets therefore higher levels of obesity.  From his content analysis, he noted that the ‘key aspect of how many of the pupils operated as consumers was their concern with special offers’ such as ‘two for one’ or ‘a meal for £1’ (ibid, 2016, pg. 14). This was the selling point for pupils who would rather travel for a good cheap meal than queue in dinner halls for school food. Caraher confirms pupils knew how unhealthy these food choices are but continue to be swayed by their affordability and accessibility. The culture of fast food seemed to be normalised in such areas and the attitudes are hard to worn off since competition of these outlets encourage pupils to consume.