More on the Los Angeles fast-food moratorium.

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Aug. 4 2008 6:43 AM

Fast-Food Conflation

More on the Los Angeles fast-food moratorium.

Site of the Community Coalition headquarters in Los Angeles
Site of the Community Coalition headquarters in Los Angeles

Lots of backtalk to Thursday's piece about the fast-food moratorium in Los Angeles. The conversation is turning into a progressive-libertarian slugfest. My bad: I laid on the outrage a bit thick. I really am shocked that the L.A. City Council unanimously voted to treat fast food just like alcohol or tobacco. But I don't want the crossing of that line to be obscured by a larger ideological quarrel. So let's back up and focus on exactly what's new here.

Two writers I respect, Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias, argue that the moratorium isn't really new. Here's Klein:

[T]he city council is doing something incredibly ordinary: Deciding what sort of establishment it will allow to open within its jurisdiction. This is called zoning, and not to scare anyone, but it happens all the time. … City governments have long used the preferences of residents or the perceived needs of the community to discriminate when licensing businesses for construction. … [T]he idea that this is some sort of crazy new nanny state innovation just suggests that folks really aren't paying attention to how their local governments work.

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And here's Yglesias:

[T]his is hardly unique. Is Saletan for abolishing liquor license regulations? Maybe he is. I don't think that's a crazy position but that would be a radical change in the way we do business. Banning fast food outlets, by contrast, is very much in line with the status quo. And though it might shock Saletan to hear about it, there are lots of upscale towns and neighborhoods all across the country that do the same thing.

Well, almost. When an old practice ventures into new territory, you can always choose to look at it as the same old thing. But in this case, the novelty of the application is what's interesting. Most cities have long zoned liquor stores, and some have zoned chain restaurants for reasons other than health, such as tackiness. What's new in L.A. is the zoning of fast food as a health threat akin to liquor. Health zoning has crossed the line from booze and cigarettes to food. This goes way beyond tackiness. In principle, it justifies banning the targeted restaurants not just here or there but everywhere.

To clarify the novelty, here's the New York Times, two years ago, on a similar plan that was under development in New York:

Leaders in Concord [Mass.] and other communities have acted against fast food because they say the establishments create traffic and pollution problems, contribute to truancy, tarnish the aesthetics of the area or drive mom-and-pop restaurants out of business. [New York City Councilman Joel] Rivera is one of the first elected officials to propose restricting fast-food outlets for purely nutritional reasons.

Health is the explicit rationale for the L.A. ordinance. Marqueece Harris-Dawson, the executive director of Community Coalition, a major force behind the ordinance, reaffirmed this point in a letter  to Slate on Friday:

What kind of choice is it if the predominant options we have in our neighborhood are greasy, unhealthy fast food restaurants? What kind of choice do we have when our neighborhoods are filled with liquor stores rather than full service grocery stores? Our choices are not between healthy and unhealthy, but often between bad and worse.

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?

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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