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Study finds fast-food choices encroach on Chicago schools

Urban pattern likely, Harvard researchers say

CHICAGO -- The big Burger King sign across the street from a high school campus advertises this temptation: ''2 Whoppers for $3."

The scene is repeated throughout Chicago, where fast-food restaurants are clustered within easy walking distance of elementary and high schools, according to a study by Harvard's School of Public Health. The researchers say the pattern probably exists in urban areas nationwide and is probably contributing to the nation's obesity epidemic.

''It can be very hard for children and teens to eat in healthy ways when they're inundated with this," said lead author Bryn Austin, a researcher at Harvard and Children's Hospital Boston.

Nearly 80 percent of the Chicago schools studied had at least one fast-food restaurant within a half-mile. Statistical mapping techniques showed there were at least three times more fast-food restaurants located less than a mile from schools than would be expected if the restaurants had been more randomly distributed, the researchers said.

Austin said Chicago was chosen because some of the researchers had previous experience in the city, and she said Chicago has a diverse population that probably reflects what is happening in other urban areas.

Previous studies have shown that on a typical day, almost one-third of US youngsters eat fast-food and that when they do, they consume more calories, fats, and sugars and fewer fruits and vegetables than on days when they don't eat fast-food, the researchers said.

The findings beg the question of whether fast-food companies intentionally locate their restaurants near schools to make them easily accessible to young people, some of their key customers, Austin said.

''We know that a great deal of thought and planning goes into fast-food restaurant site location," and that children ''are very important to the market," Austin said.

Walt Riker, McDonald's Corp. spokesman, said the fast-food giant locates its restaurants ''in high-traffic areas like every other business, to serve customers. It has nothing to do with schools." He called the study speculative because the researchers didn't assess whether the proximity of fast-food affected students' eating habits.

Burger King did not return several calls seeking comment.

The study was released yesterday in the September issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

''We can't really tell our students not to go to fast-food restaurants; all we can do is to educate them about what healthy food choices are," said Mike Vaughn, a spokesman for Chicago's public schools.

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