In response to the growing obesity epidemic (pun intended), the US government has made several proactive changes to the types of food served to our children in schools, by setting up educational programs for families to learn more about preparing healthier meals, along with several new exercise initiatives. Now, the Los Angeles City Council has passed an ordinance prohibiting construction of new fast-food restaurants in a 32-square-mile area inhabited by 500,000 low-income people, as reported by Slate.com. (The full story: Food Apartheid by William Saletan)
The ordinance, which passed unanimously, is essentially the beginning of food zoning, the way liquor and cigarette sales are already zoned.
“Proponents of the L.A. ordinance see it as the logical next step,” reports Saletan. Fast food is bad for you, just as drinking or smoking is, they argue. Community Coalition, a local activist group, also promotes the moratorium.
Let me interject by confessing that, for almost two decades, I’ve held a secret fantasy that all products sold as “food” be required to have some nutritional value. This fantasy has remained a secret for fear of being driven over by drive-through devotees. Besides, I know all too well that if edible products without nutritional value were to be outlawed, it would be less than a fiscal quarter before consumers saw newly-fortified products like Snickers, Funyons, and Coca-Cola become advertised, “now, with 9 essential nutrients!” I imagine factories installing a crop-duster spray over the assembly line, coating existing products with an eerily-flavored mist of nutrients.
I realize that in my Brave New World of nutrient-dense eating, culinary genius such as buttery white-flour croissants, triple-chocolate birthday cake, and maple-glazed buttermilk donuts would be banned. (What sadness would cover the land.) And so I back away from the fantasy, muttering “everything in moderation.”
(Although, if you haven’t tried raw or vegan desserts, you simply must. They might be the solution for civilization.)
LA’s new ordinance was passed because city council believes it is creating more food choices—grocery stores and sit-down restaurants would fill existing space and land. As Councilwoman Jan Perry said, “Ultimately, this ordinance is about providing choices—something that is currently lacking in our community.” Saletan suggests the Council depicts poor people like children, as less capable of free choice. “Why does the moratorium apply only to the poor part of town, around South-Central L.A.?” he asks. A fellow council member explains: “The over concentration of fast food restaurants in conjunction with the lack of grocery stores places these communities in a poor situation to locate a variety of food and fresh food.”
The fact is this: the cheapest food is the best for you: veggies, fruits, whole grains purchased in bulk, and beans and legumes. Historically, these are the staples of not only the poor, but all socio-economic groups, with the consumption of meats, cheeses, and fish occurring less regularly. I like to think that if everyone ate this way, it would create a tremendous boon to US agriculture. My optimism may be naive, considering the low prices offered on imported Chilean produce, thanks to lower labor costs in that country, but that is another (blog) post.
I stand behind the government’s initiatives to educate everyone about healthier eating (in more than one language), and City Council’s interest in attracting more grocery options to the neighborhoods that need them most. However, Saletan asserts, “Restricting options in low-income neighborhoods is a disturbingly paternalistic way of solving the problem.”
In the US, obesity affects all races and social groups, so why focus on zoning poorer neighborhoods? Are affluent or middle-class people less likely to super-size it? My husband Joseph raised an interesting point; he reminded me that when studies were carried out before zoning laws were enforced for the restriction of alcohol and cigarette products, it was determined that lower-income people and minorities are heavily targeted by those companies. They are, in fact, exploited. Zoning regulations, therefore, began in an effort to curb the exploitation of those groups. (Can’t we just tighten the advertising laws?)
We all know what happens when alcohol is prohibited, and while cigarettes have been overwhelmingly linked to cancer, heart problems, and ultimately death, outlawing them entirely would result in a similar backlash and underground production and sales. The government can’t (and will never be able to) tell us what to eat, but we should be able to look to city leaders to protect people from harm. Obesity is harmful. Poor nutrition is harmful. Zoning, however, works. Your thoughts?