L.A. City Council Turns Fast Food Into a Zoning Issue

In a unanimous vote on July 29, the Los Angeles City Council approved a one-year moratorium on the opening of new fast food establishments in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Was the council acting in its constituents’ best interests or did the city extend itself too far into the lives of its residents?

In a unanimous vote on July 29, the Los Angeles City Council approved a one-year moratorium on the opening of new fast food establishments in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. The Council hopes the measure will help address the lack of healthy food options and attract new businesses to areas one councilman describes as having “an over concentration of stand alone restaurants that are similar in nature.”

Councilwoman Jan C. Perry, who co-authored the ordinance with Councilman Bernard Parks, issued a press release following the vote:

“We need to attract sit-down restaurants, full service grocery stores, and healthy food alternatives and we need to do so in an aggressive manner,” said Councilwoman Perry. “Ultimately, this ordinance is about providing choices – something that is currently lacking in our community.”

Many low-income inner-city neighborhoods suffer from this problem. Sometimes called “food deserts” for their lack of access to fresh groceries and sit-down restaurants, these neighborhoods can offer its residents only what is cheapest and most readily available, which fast food restaurants are eager to provide.

The ordinance specifically targets the neighborhoods of South Los Angeles – formerly known as South Central – Southeast Los Angeles, West Adams, Baldwin Hills and Leimert Park, all of which are about 10 miles south of downtown L.A.

Perry continues:

“Studies have shown that there is a large and growing residential population that is need of important amenities like grocery stores and sit-down restaurants for the entire family to enjoy. The people of our community deserve choices.”

It is difficult to disagree with Perry’s intentions. The notion that poor urban residents deserve the same freedom of dietary choice as their wealthier counterparts is a numbingly obvious one, especially when public health is at stake.

But this is not a matter of simply crossing off the oddball answer from a multiple-choice question. The contradiction lies in Perry’s suggestion that curtailing choice will enhance the viability of alternatives and foster more informed decision-making. It doesn’t add up. Eliminating fast food from the menu, so to speak, implies that residents of these areas are incapable of making these decisions independently and thus need a paternalist city government to do so in their place.

Taking economics and demographics into consideration, a whole new set of implications comes into play. According to 2000 census data, the average median household income for the five targeted neighborhoods is $26,677. The average percentage of non-white residents in these neighborhoods is 83 percent. Is it merely coincidence that this ordinance, which Perry hopes to eventually make permanent, only pertains to a set of five neighborhoods inhabited by poor minorities?

The consumption of fast food is an equal opportunity health hazard. Perhaps a citywide moratorium would be of greater benefit, rather than for a group a pair of zealous council members identified for its pet project. With overall improvements in public health and business diversity, the whole city of Los Angeles would stand to gain.

Although the concentration of “stand alone restaurants that are similar in nature” should be of concern to residents, planners and politicians across the city, blocking new construction of fast food restaurants does not necessarily mean that a grocery store, farmer’s market or family-friendly restaurant will suddenly sprout up from the cracks of an empty parking lot in South Los Angeles. Nor does it mean residents will begin to make better dietary decisions because Councilmembers Perry and Parks took away a few of the unhealthy options on the table. Reading between the lines, the ordinance simply appears to be compensating for community development plans that Perry’s office says “were originally developed in the 1970s and have been revised only once during the past 30-plus years.”

As always, the issue comes down to whether or not the government should have its hands on people’s hamburgers, or whatever the health risk du jour may be.

Transforming freedom of dietary choice into a zoning issue is a slippery slope to walk on. Fast food pales in comparison to other social and public health risks, namely tobacco, alcohol and pornography. It’s easy to see a need to prevent the construction of an erotic bookstore across the street from an elementary school or to justify the removal of soda machines from cafeterias. That doesn’t mean consenting adults should have their Big Macs taken away because their section of the city has a higher concentration of fast food chains than the glitzy neighborhoods up in the hills.

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Tags: los angeleshealthfood desertscity councilsrestaurants

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