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 likely 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 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 expertise in the city, and she noted that Chicago has a diverse population that likely reflects what is happening in other urban areas.
Previous studies have shown that on a typical day, almost one-third of U.S. 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.
McDonald's Corp. spokesman Walt Riker 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 assumptions speculative since the researchers didn't assess whether proximity of fast food affected students' eating habits.
Burger King did not return several phone messages seeking comment.
The study was released Tuesday in the September issue of the American Journal of Public Health.
The researchers compiled 2002 data on 613 fast food restaurants and 1,292 public and private schools in Chicago. Sources included Technomic Inc., a food industry market research company that publishes a list of leading fast-food chains. Restaurants and schools for which addresses could not be found were excluded, but the researchers said the report includes at least 90 percent of both.
An estimated 16 percent or more than 9 million U.S. children aged 6 to 19 are seriously overweight or obese, numbers that have tripled since 1980.
Children in Chicago are more than twice as likely to be overweight when they enter kindergarten than children elsewhere, so the study is especially troubling, said Dr. Matt Longjohn, executive director of the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children.
One solution is to "change demand" and make healthy food choices more accessible, Longjohn said.
Chicago's public schools are among districts that have eliminated junk-food and soft drinks from campus vending machines in an effort to tackle the problem, but the researchers said the clustering of fast-food restaurants near schools may be undermining those efforts.
"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.