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We Talked to Kids on London's Controversial Fast Food Mile

Kids are getting fat. This is an indisputable fact. I went down to West Green Road—London's "fast food mile”—to talk to the mass exodus of grease-craving school children who waddle directly from the gates and into the nearest food shops.
May 5, 2014, 4:03pm
Photo via Flickr user Mikey

Kids are getting fat. This is an indisputable fact. It's become impossible to open up a newspaper these days without being confronted with the image of a five-year-old bursting through the seams of their outfit. It's sad and terrifying on so many levels. Jamie Oliver has recently taken up the crusade once more, naturally, whose sermons will surely sound to some like the mad ramblings of a man who was once asked how many chicken nuggets could fill the Grand Canyon and has long since forgotten what his prize was for guessing.

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But here's the thing: Jamie is, as always, correct, and it's fantastic that we have at least one high profile person looking out for the health of kids who, apparently, know no better. Unlike us responsible adults who deny climate change, reckon Nigel Farage ain't that bad, and consider Jeremy Clarkson to be a harmless ball of sedentary puss.

Poor fucking kids, eh? Surely there's an argument here to stop calling them fat, because it's basic psychology that if you're told something enough times you'll start to believe it.

School kids walking home down West Green Road. All photos by the author unless otherwise stated.

It's not their fault that we open up bloody fast food joints on every reasonably priced lot in the country and then offer up mountains of greasy chicken for roughly the same price of a Freddo and a can of Coke.

Last week I went down to West Green Road—which connects Turnpike Lane with Seven Sisters like a gigantic wishbone—after reading that it was, apparently, London's "fast food mile" and that, between 3:15 and 3:45 PM every day, a mass exodus of grease-hungry school children who waddle directly from the gates and into the nearest foodery for a chip fat (i.e., French fry) transfusion.

Let me tell you quickly about West Green Road. It is, despite what you may have read, a pretty bog-standard North London street full of nurseries, pizzerias, cafés, corner stores and, yes, fried chicken shops. But it's also got five schools nearby—one private and four state—that would, under normal circumstances, suggest the presence of a decent, attractive neighborhood. But this is Tottenham, the road that is inherently evil and slowly turning our cadaverous, attractive children into little Jabba the Huts.

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There are somewhere between 11 and 34 fast food shops on the road. I say "somewhere between" because, when I visited, I only counted 11. Still, when the amount of takeaway shops within spitting distance of a cluster of schools reaches double figures, it's pretty fucking worrying. But as with all worries of this kind, there's a screaming assumption that kids are unthinking or unaware of their own bodies, that they're compelled by a dark magic to eat a box of fried chicken and chips on their way home from school instead of a cheeky little bag of crisps to eat on the bus.

A lone takeaway box sits on the pavement.

Anyone who has been eight-years-old knows that kids don't really give a shit about each other's feelings as long as it hunts out the truth, which is why kids are the best people to talk about whether or not they think they're getting fat. Here's what the young people of West Green Road said to me when I asked them about their eating habits.

MUNCHIES: We're in a fried chicken shop. Do you eat here every day? Charlie S: No way. But he does. [Charlie points at Dami, who blushes] Dami: Do one. [Dami has a can of Diet Coke in his left hand and a small portion of chips in his right]

Are you aware that that is bad for you? Dami: Yeah. But it's tasty. And I don't eat here every day. Charlie S: Every other day. Look, there's no point lying, man. He can tell. You're fat. F-A-T. Dami: Whatever.

I notice you're outside this pizza place but you don't have any food. Samantha: Yeah, I'm on a diet. [Samantha sips on a Capris Sun. An empty food carton sits dangerously near a bin]

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Can I ask how old you are? I'm 16.

Why are you here, then? I'm waiting for friends.

Do they eat here every day? No. Why would they? I'm in an after school club. We come here on Wednesdays after school. Well, they do. I go the Sainsbury's. Some do though. To them, this is their heaven. They come here all the time.

Why are you on a diet? You don't look overweight. Why are you wearing a yellow jacket?

[Samantha is joined by Rohan, who has a fresh box of something in his hands]

What are you eating? Rohan: Doughnuts.

That's a lot of doughnuts. I'm a vegetarian.

Are you aware that doughnuts are bad for you? I'm not an idiot.

Do people eat here all the time? Nope. The school's cracking down on it… Something happened here recently. I'm not sure what. But… they don't want people crossing and eating, not anymore.

That sounds very mysterious. I don't know anything else.

Do your parents know you eat here? Yeah. They give me the money.

At this point my camera's flash went off, snapping a large group of kids outside the corner store.

Anonymous, from the group: This peado's got a fucking camera.

MUNCHIES: Sorry about that. Go snap something useful.

Fuck.

He had a point. These kids were neither fat nor particularly dirty. Their rubbish went into the bins or in neat piles beside the bins. They were hanging out. They didn't want a strange man with a notepad harassing them the moment they'd escaped the attention of strange men and women with blackboards.

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MUNCHIES: You're the manager of the corner store beside Park View School. I notice you've got a lot of deals for sweets and stuff here, but not for fruit. Why? Dal: Because kids aren't here to buy their daily cucumber.

That's not a fruit. Sorry?

MUNCHIES: You're Fred, right? Of the fast food joint Freddy's? Freddy: I am.

You do "healthy" fast food? I try to. The kids got me to put the kebab back on.

That sounds like a bit of a fail. Why is all the food so cheap? Isn't that a bit predatorial? Kids around here don't have that much money, and this is a business.

MUNCHIES: You run the mattress store. West Green Road is just around the corner. Do the kids ever come in here on a sugar high and bounce on the beds and pretend to be ghosts underneath the sheets? Mark: No.

Do they get chicken grease everywhere and it's just a nightmare to get out? Not really.

What about pizza boxes? Stacked up like bedside tables? I bet they're terrible. I run the bed shop. The kids don't really bother me.

Would you say that the kids around here are particularly fat? They're okay. I'd say average.

Is that nationally or internationally speaking? Both, I guess.

Do you want to go get some chicken? No thanks. That stuff is rank.

Suit yourself.

It seems to me that the witch hunt against obesity has struggled to figure out what comes first—the chicken or the gut—and so they blame the schools, the parents, and, finally, the kids. The simple truth is that as long as these shops exist—which is their right—they will be used by the most vulnerable, even if stricter planning controls do come into play. Britain is not Japan: We don't have a historically healthy cuisine. We deep-fry everything. We drink pints. We love pies. But it doesn't mean that most of us eat like that most of the time.

Instead of sandblasting kids with the idea that what they're eating is going to kill them one day, and instead of making them feel like they're doing something unspeakable by getting a bag of doughnuts every so often, try and listen to them. Most of the kids I met were just socializing near the fried chicken shops. Not all of them were eating. Some were, but I suspect it's as much to do with falling into a habit of the chicken shop becoming a social terminal. It's just where they hang out.

The obesity problem in this country spiralling needs to be thoughtfully tackled, but the nucleus of the issue can't just be pretty healthy kids treating themselves sometimes. Yes, planning legislations should be implemented to curb the supposed "vultures" opening takeaways around schools, but perhaps we should start praising kids —who clearly know themselves more than we think—for the things they do well. Like running around and acting like annoying little shits.