Everywhere you look in Camberwell there are inducements to eat: not just enough to satisfy your appetite, but to stuff yourself to excess.
Fast-food outlets jostle for custom on the high street of this deprived area of South London. Quantity, rather than quality, is the lure. Cut-price meal deals, reductions for bulk buying and gut-busting ‘all you can eat’ offers are everywhere.
A Caribbean shop proffers six patties — pastries usually filled with meat — for £5, or it’s £25 for 50. Around the corner, a Chinese buffet suggests customers eat as much as they can, more than 20 courses, for just £7.99. Inside, diners of all ages devour giant plates of rice and glutinous meat.
Another buffet a few steps away is £2 cheaper. ‘There’s no time limit. You can stay all day,’ says an employee at Noodles City, which is open 12 hours daily.
Cut-price meal deals, reductions for bulk buying and gut-busting ‘all you can eat’ offers are everywhere in Camberwell
Among the lurid pictures of burgers, kebabs and pizzas that festoon the shops, one advert stands out at an outlet called Morley’s. It’s aimed at passing children and trumpets: ‘School kids offer (3pm-6pm)’.
For just £1, pupils on their way home from nearby schools can fill up on fried chicken wings and legs, or burger and chips — and wash it down with a sugar-laden drink for another £1.
Is it any wonder that Camberwell Green, in the borough of Southwark, is at the centre of the nation’s childhood obesity epidemic?
This week, the area was singled out by Public Health England as the first in Britain where more than half of children are overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school.
This Chinese buffet suggests customers eat as much as they can, more than 20 courses, for just £7.99 to diners of all ages
Camberwell Green is so named for the small park at the junction of bustling Camberwell Road and Camberwell New Road. To the south-west, it is overlooked by a parade of shops whose dilapidated Victorian edifices are colonised by garish takeaway outlets.
A markedly deprived area, it is nonetheless popular with students from the nearby Camberwell College of Arts. It is also home to many young families — the average age here is 33 — many of whose children go to the four primary schools within a few minutes’ walk.
By the time these pupils are aged ten or 11, the official research shows, more than 50 per cent have a BMI of 25 or above (a BMI of 18 to 24 is considered healthy).
It is a sobering statistic, which studies suggest is directly linked to the march of takeaway outlets, whose numbers grew by seven per cent between 2014 and 2017.
Those figures make Camberwell Green Britain’s worst area for childhood obesity, with the rest of the top ten comprising eight other wards in deprived London boroughs, including Newington, Livesey and Chaucer in Southwark, Hoxton West and Woodberry Down in Hackney, Lancaster Gate in Westminster, Woolwich Riverside in Greenwich and Royal Docks in Newham, as well as Fenton West and Mount Pleasant in Stoke-on-Trent.
Meanwhile, affluent enclaves in the leafy shire towns of St Albans and Harpenden West in Hertfordshire, and Godalming, Surrey, along with Bath and North-East Somerset, are among the best.
These statistics were published this week as Theresa May promised further action if current strategies — including the soft drinks levy and mandatory exercise in primary schools — fail to help.
She spoke at Prime Minister’s Question Time after facing calls from opposition parties, coordinated by chef Jamie Oliver, to introduce a 9pm watershed for junk food advertising on television, controls on advertising on streets and public transport, and a ban on buy-one-get-one-free junk food deals.
By the time these pupils are aged ten or 11, the official research shows, more than 50 per cent have a BMI of 25 or above
The figures, collated via the National Child Measurement Programme, show 50.9 per cent of Year 6 children in Camberwell Green are overweight or obese, with Newington the second worst area in England at 49.7 per cent.
Experts single out two factors as key: deprivation and the ready availability of junk food.
Kieron Boyle, chief executive of the charity Guy’s and St Thomas’, which is linked to the NHS hospitals that share its name and works to improve public health in Southwark and Lambeth, says: ‘These figures highlight the growing ‘deprivation gap’ when it comes to child obesity. It has increased by more than 50 per cent in a decade, with children in the poorest areas of England now twice as likely to be obese as wealthier neighbours.
‘Child obesity is overwhelmingly an issue of environment, and too often inner-city areas bombard us with opportunities to eat high- energy food.
‘It hits children in urban, diverse and deprived areas hardest, and we need to design our schools, shops and cities with this in mind.’
Measures to reduce the density of the fast food outlets in the area are now in place — but they cannot control the shops already here.
Walking around Camberwell Green this week, in one street I counted seven takeaways and budget restaurants in a row, with only a betting shop sandwiched in between. Bins disgorge empty food boxes and half-finished burgers. Even a hardware store also sells food and wine.
Around the Green, there are more than 33 outlets. Big brands including Pizza Hut, Greggs, Nando’s, McDonald’s, KFC and Tennessee Fried Chicken vie with nine independent chicken shops plus kebab stores, Indians, Chinese, Lebanese and Caribbean takeaways.
Walking around Camberwell Green this week, in one street I counted seven takeaways and budget restaurants in a row
School leaving time, from 3.30pm, is rush hour — and the cheapest shops are the most popular. Morley’s, with its cut-price chicken deal, is thronging. McDonald’s heaves with chattering queues of pupils.
It’s here that I meet Vivienne de Bascarli, 43, and her 11-year-old son Italo, who is enjoying a burger. Vivienne, a lunchtime supervisor at her son’s Camberwell junior school, is married to Italo (Sr), a driver. She says the meal is a rare treat.
She brings Italo to McDonald’s only once or twice a month because she is concerned that he has been classified as overweight. A month ago, when he was weighed at school, he was 54 kilos (8st 7lb). The average 11-year-old boy should weigh around three stone less.
Ever since, he has been on a diet, is taking more exercise and has lost two kilos (4.5lb).
Vivienne says her son’s weight crept up after a recent sports injury. ‘Italo stopped playing tennis and football when he broke his finger — he was playing three times a week — and he started putting on weight.
‘The school offers these clubs and now he’s playing again, getting fitter and losing weight.
School leaving time, from 3.30pm, is rush hour — and the cheapest shops are the most popular (file photo)
‘He loves sweets and biscuits, but I don’t buy them at all now. If he wants them, he has to buy them with his pocket money, which he gets only if he behaves at school and helps around the house.’
Vivienne, who came to the UK from her native Brazil 15 years ago, cooks from scratch at home, but is aware friends’ children buy their evening meal at the chicken shops.
‘I know a lot of mums who give their children £1 to buy a chicken meal, and you can understand why,’ she says. ‘But I think it’s about educating the parents as well.’
On a nearby table, Chizoba, 45 — she prefers not to give her full name — sits with her ten-year-old son, who is tucking into a meal of burger and chips followed by ice cream. He, like Italo, has been classified as obese following a school weigh-in.
‘I love cooking,’ says Chizoba, a widow who lives with her sister and works nights in health care support. ‘Where I was born, in Nigeria, you watched your mother cook and learned from her.
‘But my son won’t eat good home-cooked food. He only likes KFC or McDonald’s, and he’d come every day if I let him. As it is, we probably come three times a week.
‘He’d rather go hungry than eat vegetables, and as a mother I’m not comfortable if he eats nothing. So I give in, and give him what he likes.’
Chizoba wonders whether she indulges her son’s pernickety eating habits because he was born very prematurely, at just 25 weeks, and she was so eager to feed him up that she cannot now bear the thought of him going without.
‘I’ve talked to the doctor about his refusal to eat good food, and he says I shouldn’t worry; that he’ll grow out of this phase of fussiness,’ she says. ‘But I wonder.’
She is only too aware of the link between the prevalence of junk food outlets and obesity: ‘You see a lot of kids just walking along the street eating fast food and I think it’s because parents struggle financially to give them quality food.
‘I try hard to get good food to tempt my son to eat properly. I go to M&S to buy him nice things, and go to cheaper shops for my own food. But nothing seems to work.’
She is right to be concerned. Children who are obese when they leave junior school are more likely to develop diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, as well as osteoarthritis and certain cancers, at younger ages. They are also more likely to die prematurely and face disability in adulthood, the World Health Organisation confirms.
Tam Fry, of the National Obesity Forum, comments: ‘It’s common for deprived, low-income areas like Camberwell, with single-parent families who have to work doubly hard to survive, to have a high level of obesity. Fast food outlets thrive in these areas.
‘It may be relatively expensive, but it’s still a lot cheaper than good, healthy food. And fast food is stuffed full of all the ingredients that cause high levels of obesity — fat, sugar and salt. ‘
Greengrocer Aris Giorgio, 76, has seen vast changes over the 47 years he’s kept a shop in Camberwell, opening it soon after he arrived from his native Cyprus.
‘These days, mothers aren’t at home because they work, and it’s easier to phone for a pizza than cook,’ he says. ‘In 1971, when I opened this shop, there were just a couple of restaurants — steak houses. Now we’ve got kebabs, pizza, Chinese, Lebanese, God knows what.
‘With children it’s difficult. If they’re hungry and food’s available all round them, they’ll eat doughnuts or fried chicken. They won’t go home and cook because they haven’t learnt how to and they can’t be bothered. It takes application and time.
‘Schools should teach children about food and cooking. Show them broccoli, carrots, turnips, parsnips, because some of them don’t even know what fresh vegetables look like. Get them to identify them first, then learn how to cook them and enjoy eating them.’
Aris’s shop is a haven of colour and abundance in the nutritionally void wasteland of the High Street. Piles of sweet potatoes, okra, yams and plantains are stacked alongside beetroot, lettuce, tomatoes, tubs of glistening olives and chillies.
For the past four and a half decades, he has risen at 3.30am to buy produce at markets, and kept his shop open til 9pm, seven days a week. Profits are down, he laments, but he soldiers on, helped by his grandson David, 28.
Among his regular customers is Cornelius Gray, 65, a retired electrical engineer with London Transport.
‘There used to be a market on the Green when I was a kid here,’ reflects Cornelius. ‘It sold fruit, veg, fish. There’s nothing like that now. The fast-food outlets have come in the past ten years.
‘I’m one of six brothers and we were always out playing. But it’s too dangerous for kids to be out on their own now, so they stay at home on their computers. They don’t exercise.’
Serge Cefai, head teacher of nearby Sacred Heart Catholic School, laments the selling of playing fields by local councils. His school compensates with table tennis and five-a-side football on its concrete playground.
He provides healthy school meals for pupils, but cannot regulate their choices when they leave the premises. ‘Naïve parenting is a problem,’ he says. ‘If children are given money and they have the option of buying vegetables or sweets and chips, of course they’ll make the wrong choices.’
And temptation is everywhere. At Poundland, towering mountains of Fox’s biscuits are banked alongside stacks of Maltesers and Chocolate Oranges. Cola lollies entice at the checkout.
In the nearby Morrisons supermarket, by contrast, the vegetable display is unalluring. The broccoli bin is empty, and there is a space where the white cabbage should be. But the shelves offering two for £3 on flapjacks and honeycomb clusters are regularly replenished.
The fragmentation of close-knit families, hard-pressed working single parents, poverty, lack of cookery skills and the ever-present allure of fast food — all these factors create the perfect conditions for soaring obesity and ill-health.
I bump into mum Lilia Serna buying vegetables with her 11-year-old son. ‘I cook for him at home every night. It’s better than fast food,’ she says, but concedes: ‘He’s overweight. I have told him not to eat chicken takeaways.’
The problem is as intractable as it is ubiquitous. And until temptation is removed, it will not go away.