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Using technology to combat the rise of the Chicken Shop

By: Tori Flower
On: 9th July 2014
Organisation name: We Are What We Do
Project name: We Are What We Do Social Innovation

Chicken Cottage, Dixy Chicken, PFC, HFC, Papa’s, Sam’s, Morley’s and more. At We Are What We Do, we have been looking at the rise of the chicken shops and exploring practical solutions to poor diets amongst young people in low income areas.

A picture of the problem

Obesity levels have tripled in 15 year-olds over the last ten years [1] and more than 1 in 3 children aged 11–15 years are overweight or obese [2], leading to a number of serious health problems such as heart disease and diabetes and costing the NHS as much as £4 billion annually [3]. Poor diets have also been show to affect concentration and behavioural issues in school.

There is a strong relationship between deprivation, poor diets and childhood obesity. The more deprived a child is, the more likely they are to be obese. Obesity prevalence in the most deprived 10% of the population is approximately twice that of the least deprived 10% [4].

“Obesogenic environments”, as they are now being called, are playing a major contributing factor to poor diets. These are areas where cheap, unhealthy fast food outlets proliferate and there is an almost complete lack of healthy fast food outlets that have an attractive offer at an affordable price point.

In Forest Gate, in Newham, where we undertook some local mapping, there were around 30 fast food outlets within a one kilometer radius, an area that also included four secondary schools and five primary schools. In fact, all secondary schools in Newham are within 500m of at least one takeaway [5]. This is not unique to Newham, the same picture can be seen in boroughs across the capital, as well as other towns and cities across the UK.

These fast food outlets are mostly independent businesses (four-fifth of the industry are independents [6]), are usually selling deep fried chicken (a market already estimated to be worth £15bn-£20bn back in 2008 [7]) and they tend to serve incredibly unhealthy food. The high-fat, energy-dense food contains high percentages of recommended daily allowances. An average meal in a chicken shop contains around 60% RDA kcal, 45% RDA saturated fats and 85% RDA salt as well as very low levels of vitamins, minerals and fibre [8].

The proliferation of these unhealthy outlets is largely due to their low overheads - a result of using the lowest quality ingredients, the fact they deep fry food directly from frozen (meaning that there is virtually no food waste), and their menus, which require very simple, standardised cooking methods, allowing them to employ low skilled staff. There is also a perception amongst young people that unhealthy fast food is more tasty, appealing and filling.

Despite their negative effect on health (as well as other social issues including litter and anti-social behaviour), it’s interesting to recognise that these fast food outlets are fulfilling a market need. Sales have remained constant despite the recession [9].

We undertook ethnographic research into the appeal of chicken shops and found the main appeal of these outlets was that they served food that was cheap (you could get a meal for around £2), quick (you could go there, order, eat and get back to school in under 20 minutes), close (ideally it was under 200m of the school gate) and tasty.

Looking for a solution

There are many important initiatives to address poor diets, including physical activity programmes, public awareness campaigns, education in schools and improvements to school dinners, but none of these touch on the problem of the obesogenic environments and offer practical solutions to these.

There therefore seem to be benefits to solutions which focus on

  • providing healthy food, rather than raising awareness of healthy eating

  • improving diet, rather than increasing physical activity

  • improving meals eaten outside school, rather than school dinners alone

  • providing food that is not explicitly healthy, rather than overtly healthy products

  • shifting the perception of healthy food towards being seen as tasty, appealing and filling

  • making the provision of healthy food financially competitive with the unhealthy alternatives.

Live research

We asked ourselves, can we meet young people needs for fast food (serving something which is cheap, quick, close, hot and tasty) and also provide something which is healthy?

As part of our research, we ran a small test in Forest Gate in Newham, for four weeks in October 2013 where we set up our own mobile food outlet selling healthy fast food.

We worked with an experienced street food caterer to design an appealing menu and created a brand (under the name Box Chicken) that would resonate with young people. It was also priced competitively - we served snacks at £1.50, meals at £2.50.

This simple test, albeit for a short period, suggested healthy food could be popular.

Compared to a meal at KFC, a meal and drink at Box Chicken had a tenth of the saturated fat, less than a fifth of the salt, fewer than half the calories, plus included an extra 2.5 portions of fruit and vegetables.

We sold around 1500 meals in just 4 weeks, saw an upward trajectory of sales, and many repeat customers.

A tough new challenge

The challenge we now face is how we might increase the number of fast food outlets selling healthy food to young people in low income areas?

How might we enable healthy fast food vendors to successfully compete with existing unhealthy fast food outlets?

The intended aim in answering these questions is to increase young people’s access to healthy, ready-to-eat meals in low income environments and to encourage young people to substitute a proportion of the unhealthy fast food meals they typically eat with much healthier ready-to-eat meals, thereby decreasing their consumption of fat, sugar, salt and calories, and increasing their consumption of fruit and vegetables.

This is a tough challenge for a number of reasons, including the facts that:

  • Fresh healthy food is expensive to produce compared to deep-fried frozen food

  • Vendors need to compete on price and location against established incumbents

  • Customers in low income areas are less able to pay high prices for food

  • Any kind of network of vendors that supports them to be there must have low running costs in order to avoid costs being passed onto the consumer

At the heart of our approach to these challenges is technology. We’ve seen, through our work on Historypin, Internet Buttons and our mental wellbeing game prototyping, technology can be harnessed to create user experiences that are stickier and more compelling, to find efficiencies and cut costs, to gather data for impact measurement and service improvements and to foster and support networks of users and organisers. In trying to establish a network of vendors that can thrive and deliver impact in low income areas we need to be more creative and experimental in the way we apply technology and find these competitive benefits than ever before. Over the next year, through our partnership with Nominet Trust, we will have the chance to do that.

As Fiona Godlee, editor in chief of the British Medical Journal states, “Rather than restricting takeaway food we should seek to transform it, by making healthy food as visible, tasty, and cheap as unhealthy food.” We’re looking forward to contributing to that ambition.

[1] Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (March 2010) Views of UK health professionals on the value of the natural environment.

[2] National Obesity Observatory (2013) NOO data fact sheet: Child weight

[3] Government Office for Science (2007) Tackling Obesities: Future Choices – Project Report

[4] National Child Measurement Programme  2012/13, from the National Obesity Observatory website.

[5] London Borough of Newham (2010) Food Outlet Mapping in the London Borough of Newham, 2010

[6] Allegra Food Strategy Forum (2009) Eating out in the UK 2009.

[7] Mintel, 2008, cited in Meltzer, T (2011) Britain’s fried chicken boom, The Guardian online

[8] Comparison of KFC website and NHS recommendations (2013)

[9] Euromonitor International (2012) Fast food in the United Kingdom.