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.