More on the Los Angeles fast-food moratorium.

Science, technology, and life.
Aug. 4 2008 6:43 AM

Fast-Food Conflation

More on the Los Angeles fast-food moratorium.

(Continued from Page 1)

Much of what Harris-Dawson says is dead right. But notice his easy transition from liquor stores to fast-food joints, which he repeats elsewhere in the letter. Yglesias, in his analysis of zoning, draws the same connection. This comparison has played a central role in the campaign for the moratorium. And it's a crucial comparison, because it justifies and, to some extent, obscures a huge step: telling food merchants that they may not open any new outlets in certain neighborhoods because their kind of food is inherently unhealthy.

So now that we're clear about what's new, let's go to the next question: Is it OK? Are we cool with regulating fast food like liquor?

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In general, I detest fast food. I try to keep it out of my house and away from my kids. But here's the thing: It's food. If you're starving, cigarettes and whiskey won't keep you alive. But hamburgers will. A Big Mac is hardly ideal. To turn it into a proper meal, you'd need leaner beef, less bun, less sauce, and a lot more vegetables. The thing I love about Roy Rogers is that you can do exactly this by loading up the burger with a heap of lettuce and tomatoes. But these are all modifications of the noun food. And that's the fundamental difference between whiskey and fast food: Food is necessary and, when properly modified, good for you.

The L.A. moratorium defies this difference. It forbids the opening of "any establishment which dispenses food for consumption on or off the premises, and which has the following characteristics: a limited menu, items prepared in advance or prepared or heated quickly, no table orders and food served in disposable wrapping or containers." As far as I can tell, that language would block Roy Rogers from opening in south L.A. No burgers, no lettuce, no tomatoes.

This is what happens when you treat food like booze or cigarettes. Food is way too complicated for that.

Harris-Dawson and Slate's Amaka Maduka argue that people in south L.A. need better food options. They're right. I've made the same point. But that's an argument for facilitating better options, not for prohibiting worse ones—particularly when the prohibited options include a $3 item that can supply three food groups.

"Fast-food chains often crowd out smaller competitors with healthier fare," Maduka writes. Harris-Dawson agrees, arguing that the moratorium is necessary "to open land and space to provide an opportunity for other healthier types of options to enter the community." But where's the evidence that fast-food joints are making land in south L.A. too scarce for grocery stores or healthy restaurants?

Take a look at the land around Harris-Dawson's Community Coalition headquarters, courtesy of Google Street View. It's easy. Block and copy this address: "8101 s. vermont ave., los angeles, ca." Then go to http://maps.google.com/maps, paste the address into the "Search Maps" bar, and click the button. When the map comes up, click on the photo and use the arrows to pivot the camera around so you can see the whole vista. Then try the same thing from the Jack-in-the-Box I mentioned, which is six blocks away. The address to plug in there is "805 w. manchester ave., los angeles, ca." Does this look like land scarcity to you? To me, it looks like urban blight. I'd love to put a grocery store near one of those locations. I'm just not persuaded that the Jack-in-the-Box is what's standing in the way.

Absent a scarcity problem, the moratorium boils down to limiting the availability of unhealthy food. And that brings me back to Human Nature's first law: Bad things don't happen because they're bad. They happen because, in the beginning, they're good. Yes, most fast food sucks. Yes, it can be addictive, sort of. Yes, there's an unusually heavy concentration of it in southern L.A. So if you're going to start prohibiting certain kinds of food outlets, fast food is a logical food to target, southern L.A. is a logical place to do it (though I still think segregated food zoning as a solution to "food apartheid" is twisted), and one year is a logical introductory period. That's what makes the L.A. ordinance worth debating: It presents the most tempting case for crossing the line to restrict food like cigarettes or whiskey. But you still have to decide whether to cross that line—and where you'll stop once you do.

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