Attack of the food police

It's already been law in NYC that all chain restaurants must have the calories posted on their menus.

LA--that city of billion dollar starlets and frightening poverty--has taken this a bit further. The local government in a poverty-stricken area of South Los Angeles (an area with, it might be noted, a large minority population) has decided to ban the building of new fast food restaurants. Some cities will ban the construction of these restaurants to preserve a small-town culture, or a particular appearance. But the government here is banning new fast food restaurants due to fears of the "obesity epidemic."

In an essay in Slate magazine, William Saletan writes:

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."

He gets at the crux of the issue a few paragraphs later:

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.

A Big Mac doesn't evaluate your income before attacking your arteries- so why are we seeing these zoning laws in low-income areas? Because these are precisely the people who need cheap, fast food the most. And, I might add, the jobs that these restaurants provide.`

The council said that they were trying to promote "food diversity" in the area, that all of the food options were the essentially veggie- and fruit-poor fast food items. But banning new fast food restaurants doesn't mean that fresh fruits and veggies will all of a sudden appear in this neighborhood. It just means there won't be any more fast food restaurants.

Maybe it's me, but I don't think you can effect true change through negatives. If the city council wanted more fresh fruits and veggies, perhaps they could do what one of the health departments around me did: make WIC coupons good at local farmer's markets. The city of Detroit has NO supermarkets at all within city limits. Convenience stores aren't known for fresh apples and carrots. Why doesn't the city council propose incentives for supermarkets and other stores that carry these items?

Maybe, as Saletan suggests, what is standing in the way isn't fast food. It's poverty, crime, and urban blight.

Another thing I find interesting is this proposal essentially treats poor, minority residents as unable to choose proper food for themselves. Many non fast food restaurants have menu items that have far more fat and calories than things at McDonald's- yet these aren't targeted. And I don't think they would be targeted even in my hometown, where chains like Applebee's and Ruby Tuesday abound. But they have a more "upscale" aura about them- even though nutritionally, their items might not be a whole lot different.

A healthy diet isn't about good or bad, yes or no. It's about choices. And fast food is a legitimate choice, just like fruits and veggies. All people should have all of these choices- regardless of where they live.

In a follow-up article, Saletan concludes:

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.

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Anonymous said...

There is a post on the NY Times site about this today (but convoluting it up with recycling and reusable bags). This truly maddens me. Where I live, they do have a program where WIC checks can be used at farmers' markets, and that should be universal. But food, to me, is a very personal choice. Not quite like religion, but along the same lines. If I have only $3 to spend for lunch and I want something that will stick with me for a while, a cheeseburger just may be my best choice. In my own "real life" I can afford to spend much more than that for lunch, but still, sometimes I want to eat a damned cheeseburger. Who is the local gov't to tell me I can't have access to it?

Carrie Arnold said...

Darn- I should have titled the post "Let them eat cheeseburgers!"

I agree- only you can make sensible choices about food for you in the moment (assuming you don't have an active eating disorder). If I need a cheap snack and don't want something sweet, the $1 nuggets at McD's are actually a good option for me.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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