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How Fried Chicken Can Combat Obesity

In North London, a revolutionary project creates good eating and good business.

With some of the highest childhood obesity rates in London, you’d think the last thing that Tottenham needed was yet another fried chicken shop. Within one square mile of Tottenham Green, in the heart of the North London borough of Haringey (the fourth most deprived in the UK), there were already 34 fried chicken shops before Hadrian Garrard and his business partner Ben Rymer fired up the fryers in number 35.

And yet, Chicken Town, which has just celebrated its first birthday, isn’t contributing to the area’s swelling obesity epidemic, but battling it. With a unique business model, this ingenious social enterprise has, since last November, been using the profits derived from its evening restaurant customers to subsidise meals for under-18s. The plan: to provide a healthy and affordable alternative to the ubiquitous high-street fare responsible for widening the waistbands of the capital’s kids. The response to the initiative has been overwhelmingly positive.

“People with a bit of money in their pocket take it for granted that there’s choice out there,” says Garrard, who is also director of social equality arts charity Create. “But whilst many people in London are eating better and better, young people in the poorer parts of the city are eating some of the worst food in Western Europe, and suffering the consequences as a result.” One in four children in Tottenham are overweight or obese by reception age. By the age of 11, that number bloats to one in three, leaving those children at high risk of diabetes and chronic cardiovascular conditions later in life.

The problem, as Garrard sees it, stems not just from a lack of nutritional knowledge, but a lack of choice. “If you’re an older kid, so you’re not stuck in school at lunchtime, and you go outside, what is there? There’s a newsagent, a supermarket and three fried chicken shops. A lot of kids have got £2 in their pocket, so what are they going to eat?”

The answer, more often than not, is a meal deal consisting of pieces of fried chicken, a portion of chips and a large fizzy drink. “The problem is,” Garrard continues, “is that it’s the worst quality chicken that you can buy. The majority of chicken shops will be serving really unhappy, bad-quality battery chickens flown in from somewhere like South America,” says Garrard. “It’s fried in cheap oil that isn’t changed very regularly – making it carcinogenic – and it’ll be fried from frozen for up to 15 minutes, so the chicken soaks up an awful lot of that oil. It’s high in fat, high in sodium, has low nutritional value, if any, and is really, really bad for you.” And yet children are lapping it up by the bucketful with alarming regularity.

To test their theory that children would happily eat better quality food if it was available and, crucially, affordable, Create commissioned behavioural change organisation, Shift, to carry out research looking at the causes of obesity in young people. In 2013 they set up a food truck selling healthy chicken lunches outside two schools in Forest Gate, in East London. They sold 1,900 meals in the first month. Realising they were on to something, and despite neither Garrard or Rymer having any experience in the food industry, they began looking for a permanent home for their food. Within 18 months they’d secured funding from the Mayor of London, Haringey council and an incredibly successful Kickstarter campaign. They then worked with Turner Prize-winning architects Assemble on converting a disused fire station into Tottenham’s newest fried chicken shop, striking the tricky balance between hipster haunt and inclusive neighbourhood eatery.

Surely though, if the goal was simply to teach young people the value of a nutritionally balanced diet, they could have opened Kale Town, serving up affordable superfood salads. “Yeah, but kids would not go. And to be honest, neither would I,” says Garrard. We’re trying to show them that there’s a healthier way of enjoying what they already like.”

Garrard’s background in community arts initiatives and Rymer’s in the music industry meant they were out of their depth when it came to making their concept a palatable reality. Fortunately, chef Giorgio Ravelli, formerly of two-Michelin-starred The Ledbury and the east London bar Brooksby’s Walk, was excited by the project and came on board as founding executive chef, designing a menu that would draw in discerning restaurant-goers and local kids alike.

So how do you make fried chicken a healthy option? “It’s about good ingredients and proper processes,” explains Ravelli. “The chicken is herb-fed, free range and all vegetables are seasonal, local and very good quality. We steam the chicken first, which keeps it beautifully moist, then coat it in panko breadcrumbs, season, then flash fry in rapeseed oil. It’s simple, much healthier than what you find on most high streets, and of course it’s very delicious.”

And all this for the same £2 that kids would pay at a generic high-street chicken shop. Unsurprisingly, the restaurant has been well received by both evening customers, who pay full London prices for chicken and chips, hot chicken sandwiches and sides, and the children whose daytime meals they’re subsidising. But despite a promising first 12 months, the hard work is far from over in securing the long-term viability of the Chicken Town project.

“The thing is, you can’t half do it,” says Garrard. “You can’t do it a bit well. People want really good food and really good service. It doesn’t matter if you’re a charity or a not-for-profit; you’re still competing with other businesses. At the moment, we’re providing a level of subsidy that enables it to carry on, but we’re trying to get the project to a point where it’s entirely self-subsidised, without compromising on the quality of the food or the service.”

One way in which they’re doing this is by employing young people from the local area in front-of-house positions and the kitchen, giving them the skills and experience to pursue further careers in the hospitality industry. “Job creation and training is a big part of the project,” says Garrard. “To create really exciting, rewarding, well-paid jobs in the food industry for young people in Tottenham.” It all feeds back into the original desire to do something positive for a community that needs a boost more than most.

The success of Chicken Town hasn’t gone unnoticed. Three other London boroughs (as well as an out-of-London city council) have already approached Garrard about replicating the project in their areas. Proof, for Tony Elliott – founder of Time Out, a director of the Chicken Town project, and one of London’s most successful entrepreneurs – that this is the start of an inspirational new branch of the food industry.

“Chicken Town is a project which I am immensely proud of,” says Elliott. “It’s started a London-wide conversation about what access there is for young people to good, affordable food and has designed an entirely new way for us all to support our communities. I hope to see more Chicken Towns spring up over the coming years and for more businesses in our city, inspired by our project, to think about how they relate to the well-being of their neighbourhoods.” For London’s restaurateurs, that’s certainly food for thought.

Daniel Masoliver writes for The Guardian, Men’s Health and Shortlist.