Uncovering JAPA

Can Zoning Solve Healthy Food Accessibility in Schools?

Healthy communities require access to healthy food sources. For students, access to healthy food is linked to various factors, including school neighborhood income and the presence of unhealthy food sources, such as fast-food restaurants (FFRs) and convenience stores (CSs). In recent years, planners have utilized several "junk food bans" or zoning measures meant to limit the presence of FFRs and CSs near schools.

Decades after municipalities implemented these policies, have these strategies been effective at changing diet-related outcomes for students?

Food Zoning Policies and Equity Implications

In "Junk Food Accessibility After 10 Years of a Restrictive Food Environment Zoning Policy Around Schools" (Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 89, No. 2), Lindsey Soon, Jason Gilliland, and Leia M. Minaker examine how much junk food bans affect a school's access to unhealthy foods during lunchtime. They specifically center questions of equity in their focus on school neighborhoods categorized by three markers of inequity: household income, whether English was spoken as an additional language and immigration status.

By focusing on mid-size Canadian municipalities (specifically in the Region of Waterloo, Ontario), Soon et al. collected data from 17 secondary schools. They analyzed these data to determine whether zoning policies were effective at:

  1. Reducing access to unhealthy foods; and
  2. Whether the policies were equitable in encouraging healthier food access in both advantaged and disadvantaged schools.

Soon et al. found that despite an overall decrease in the amount of FFRs and CSs, all schools studied still had at least two unhealthy food retailers. This finding is important because access to two or more retailers is the threshold for determining a high likelihood of junk food consumption.

In addition, disadvantaged schools still had almost two times the access to unhealthy retailers as advantaged schools — suggesting that policies may be ineffective at reducing inequities related to youth access to junk food.

Figure 3. The projected mean number of unhealthy retailers within 1-km Euclidean distance of schools by school-level advantage over 10 years.

Figure 3. The projected mean number of unhealthy retailers within 1 km Euclidean distance of schools by school-level advantage over 10 years.

Equity in Food Access Interventions Analyzed

As a student, I found this article an important reminder to consider our motivations for implementing 'best practices.' Through this article, the authors leveraged research to ask whether planning decisions had their intended outcomes.

For example, focusing solely on geographic access ignores the financial barriers to accessing healthy food sources. The authors discuss the complicated ways equity-deserving youth are often targets for broader inequities regarding food access. Targeted fast-food advertisements, food mirages, and walkability are some ways food access is disproportionately affected.

The authors highlight the Healthy Corner Store program ("which encourages and incentivizes small store owners to stock and promote healthier foods") as an alternative to restrictive zoning measures. In addition, they urge future research to consider walkability (not just walking distance) in analyzing food access and evaluating how urban environments differ from rural counterparts.

Top image: iStock/Getty Images Plus - Andrii Borodai

About the author
Mike Lidwin is a master in urban planning candidate at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design.

March 16, 2023

By Mike Lidwin