Banning fast food in poor neighborhoods.

Science, technology, and life.
July 31 2008 8:21 AM

Food Apartheid

Banning fast food in poor neighborhoods.

A cheeseburger
A cheeseburger

The war on fat has just crossed a major red line. 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.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

We're not talking anymore about preaching diet and exercise, disclosing calorie counts, or restricting sodas in schools. We're talking about banning the sale of food to adults. Treating French fries like cigarettes or liquor. I didn't think  this would happen in the United States anytime soon. I was wrong.

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The mayor hasn't yet signed the ordinance, but he probably will, since it passed unanimously. It doesn't affect existing restaurants, and initially it will impose only a one-year moratorium. But that period is likely to be extended to two years or more, and the prohibition's sponsor hopes to make it permanent.

What we're looking at, essentially, is the beginning of food zoning. Liquor and cigarette sales are already zoned. You can't sell booze here; you can't sell smokes there. Each city makes its own rules, block by block. Proponents of the L.A. ordinance see it as the logical next step. Fast food is bad for you, just as drinking or smoking is, they argue. Community Coalition, a local activist group, promotes the moratorium as a sequel to its crackdown on alcohol merchants, scummy motels, and other "nuisance businesses." An L.A. councilman says the ordinance makes sense because it's "not too different to how we regulate liquor stores."

A few other cities and towns have zoned restaurants for economic, environmental, or aesthetic reasons. But L.A. appears to be the first to do it for health reasons. Last year, a public-interest law group at Johns Hopkins outlined the rationale: "Given the significance of the obesity epidemic in the United States and the scientific evidence and legal basis supporting the zoning of fast food outlets, municipalities have an effective, yet untried, tool to address obesity in their communities."

I assumed this idea would go nowhere because we Americans don't like government restrictions on what we eat. You can nag us. You can regulate what our kids eat in school. But you'll get our burgers when you pry them from our cold, dead hands.

How did the L.A. City Council get around this resistance? By spinning the moratorium as a way to create more food choices, not fewer. And by depicting poor people, like children, as less capable of free choice.

Start with the press release (PDF) issued a week ago by the moratorium's sponsor, Councilwoman Jan Perry. Its subhead says the ordinance will "help spur the development of diverse food choices." In the second paragraph, Perry declares,

This ordinance is in no way attempting to tell people what to eat but rather responding to the need to attract sit-down restaurants, full service grocery stores, and healthy food alternatives. Ultimately, this ordinance is about providing choices—something that is currently lacking in our community.

How does blocking new fast-food outlets provide more choices? It helps local officials "attract grocery stores and restaurants to the area, by preserving existing land for these uses," says the release. And why does the moratorium apply only to the poor part of town, around South-Central L.A.? 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." Supporters of the moratorium call this state of affairs "food apartheid."

It's an odd slogan. As the encyclopedia Africana notes, apartheid was a racially discriminatory policy "enforced by white minority governments." Opening a McDonald's in South-Central L.A. is not government-enforced racial discrimination. But telling McDonald's it can open franchises only in the white part of town—what do you call that?

And what about the argument that people in South-Central need the government to block unhealthy food options because they're "in a poor situation" to locate better choices? This is the argument normally made for restricting children's food options  at school—that they're more dependent and vulnerable than the rest of us. How do you feel about treating poor people like children?

It's true that food options in low-income neighborhoods are, on average, worse than the options in wealthier neighborhoods. But restricting options in low-income neighborhoods is a disturbingly paternalistic way of solving the problem. And the helplessness attributed to poor people is exaggerated. "You try to get a salad within 20 minutes of our location; it's virtually impossible," says the Community Coalition's executive director. Really? The coalition's headquarters is at 8101 S. Vermont Ave.  A quick Google search shows, among other outlets, a Jack-in-the-Box six blocks away. They have salads. Not the world's greatest salads, but not as bad as a government that tells you whose salad you can eat.

Already, the majority leader of New York's city council wants to adopt food zoning, and several cities have phoned L.A.'s planning department to request copies  of the ordinance. Hey, I'm all for better food  in impoverished neighborhoods. Incentives for grocery stores are a great idea. But telling certain kinds of restaurants that they can't serve certain kinds of people is just plain wrong, even when you think it's for their own good.

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