Whereas studies in Melbourne and New Orleans have found that fast food outlets were more concentrated in low income and black areas, we have found that neither out-of-home outlets in general, nor takeaways or fast food chain restaurants in particular, were more likely to be found in more deprived areas of Glasgow. To the contrary, we found that there were more outlets in the second most affluent category, and that outlets tended to be located in inner city or West End areas which attract customers during the day (e.g. retail and business centres) and evening (e.g. leisure centres). There are few outlets in areas which are primarily residential.
These findings may be unique to Glasgow and its particular history of urban development and planning, but we suspect the pattern we observed may be common in other UK cities. This is because restaurants and takeaways are likely to be located where there is most potential custom both during the day and evenings, and such demand is higher in retail, transport and commercial centres, areas with high density of entertainment facilities such as cinemas, theatres and pubs, and along arterial highways with much passing traffic. 'Gentrification' has involved the movement of socio-economically advantaged individuals into Glasgow City centre (e.g. 'the Merchant City') and the West End. Deprived areas in Glasgow are primarily residential and have often been noted to be lacking a whole range of local amenities (such as public transport, schools etc), especially the peripheral public housing estates (Castlemilk, Eaterhouse, Pollok, Drumchapel; see map) which were built immediately after the second world war to alleviate appalling housing conditions in the inner city. Thus the location of out-of-home eating outlets may reflect rational responses on the part of owners or franchisees to principles of supply and demand. This pattern may be different from those observed in the USA, where deprived populations may be concentrated more in the inner city and wealthier people dispersed to suburbs [34
], and from Australia, where it has been argued by some that there is less spatial segregation along social and economic lines [46
]. The different measures of deprivation used in the New Orleans, Melbourne, and Glasgow studies may also contribute to different findings.
Despite the fact that the location of out-of-home eating outlets may be a rational response to likely demand, there seems to be a prevailing assumption that such outlets, particularly fast food outlets, are targeted at deprived communities and are part of the reason for poorer diets and higher obesity levels in poor places. In an article in The Observer, a national Sunday newspaper, David Smith wrote about Shettleston, a relatively deprived area in Glasgow, which has one the worst life expectancy records in the UK. He gave considerable emphasis to the density of fast food outlets:
'At the front of Celtic FC's Parkhead Stadium, children queue for a burger bar at 10 in the morning....(and) Bridgeton, within the Shettleston constituency, is possibly the alcohol and fast food capital of Britain. Within a radius of just 200 yards around the metro station there are nine pubs, an off licence and seven takeaways'
and he quotes several local people similarly emphasising fast food availability:
"The children go to Burger Kings or McDonalds, and there's nothing you can do"...."There is a fast food shop at every corner. Going to those places becomes a habit" [47
While such stereotypes are common, they are not supported by the findings of this study. Though there are a number of out-of-home outlets along Shettleston Road and London Road (see map) their presence there is no more dense than along other main roads including ones in more middle class areas such as the West End. Just as perceptions on the part of the mass media, policymakers and food activists to the effect that deprived communities have poorer access to healthy foods at affordable prices may not be borne out by the empirical evidence, [34
] perceptions held about a greater exposure among deprived communities to unhealthy diets may not necessarily be empirically substantiated.
There are clearly some limitations to our study. It is restricted to one city (as are those undertaken in Melbourne and New Orleans). By definition, we have not been able to map the location of mobile fast food outlets (e.g. vans selling pies, burgers etc) and it may be that these target poorer residential areas. It should also be noted that although takeaways and the chain restaurants primarily serve what is conventionally called fast food (i.e. high in fat, energy, and salt), they, and other restaurants and cafes, may serve healthier options instead of, or as well as, fast foods. Our interpretation of the maps is descriptive rather than using a more sophisticated GIS approaches.
Our findings may not appear consistent with those from another study in which we assessed the location of McDonald's restaurants in England and Scotland in relation to deprivation in 2005, and found that these restaurants were significantly more likely to be found in more deprived neighbourhoods[39
]. Large global chains such as McDonald's have sophisticated marketing systems that allow them to pin-point with some accuracy the 'optimum' location based on geo-demographics, distance from headquarters, distribution points and main transport links and intersections, and sales figures in existing outlets [9
] whereas the locational strategies of independent outlets may be more locally based. It may also be that individual chains avoid areas where others are located, so that if one chain tends to be located in more deprived neighbourhoods, others will locate in less deprived ones and so balance each other out.
The association between area level social deprivation and the availability of foods prepared outside the home, in particular fast foods, must be investigated in the context of the local availability of land, the price of real estate and the ease of obtaining planning permission. Differences in these factors may explain the differences between the findings reported here and those reported nationally for a single large global chain, and in other countries.
With increasing evidence of the possible risks to health of some types of fast food (because of portion sizes, energy density, and fat and salt content), it is important to establish whether the popular assumption that proximity to fast food outlets tends to lead to greater consumption of such foods and subsequently higher rates of obesity and poor health is substantiated. Further critical evaluation of the role of access to foods eaten outside the home in the aetiology of obesity is warranted. This relationship may well be more complex than simple proximity to an outlet, and may vary with macro and more local cultural and socioeconomic factors. As we have previously argued [49
], it is important that health promotion policies in relation to the predicted obesity epidemic are based on robust empirical evidence and sensitivity to cultural and socioeconomic context, rather than on untested assumptions or 'factoids'.