As America gets fatter, policymakers are seeking creative approaches to legislating health. They may have entered the school cafeteria -- and now they're eyeing your neighborhood.
Amid worries of an obesity epidemic and its related illnesses, including high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease, Los Angeles officials, among others around the country, are proposing to limit new fast-food restaurants -- a tactic that could be called health zoning.
The City Council will be asked this fall to consider an up to two-year moratorium on new fast-food restaurants in South L.A., a part of the city where fast food is at least as much a practicality as a preference.
"The people don't want them, but when they don't have any other options, they may gravitate to what's there," said Councilwoman Jan Perry, who proposed the ordinance in June, and whose district includes portions of South L.A. that would be affected by the plan.
In just one-quarter of a mile near USC on Figueroa Street, from Adams Boulevard south, there are about 20 fast-food outlets.
"To be honest, it's all we eat," Rey Merlan said one recent lunch hour at a Kentucky Fried Chicken. "Everywhere, it's fast food everywhere."
Merlan said it wasn't likely that a limit on new restaurants would change peoples' habits, even though he thinks it's a good idea.
A Times analysis of the city's roughly 8,200 restaurants found that South Los Angeles has the highest concentration of fast-food eateries. Per capita, the area has fewer eating establishments of any kind than the Westside, downtown or Hollywood, and about the same as the Valley. But a much higher percentage of those are fast-food chains. South L.A. also has far fewer grocery stores.
Thirty percent of adults in South L.A. are obese, compared with 20.9% in the county overall, according to a county Department of Public Health study released in April. For children, the obesity rate was 29% in South L.A., compared with 23.3% in the county.
And the figures are higher than a decade ago. In 1997, the adult rate was 25.3% in South L.A. and 14.3% in the county. South L.A. also has the highest diabetes levels in the county, at 11.7%, compared with 8.1% in the county.
"While limiting fast-food restaurants isn't a solution in itself, it's an important piece of the puzzle," said Mark Vallianatos, director of the Center for Food and Justice at Occidental College.
This is "bringing health policy and environmental policy together with land-use planning," he said. "I think that's smart, and it's the wave of the future."
Fast-food restaurants haven't missed the cue: From their menus, diners can choose salads over burgers, yogurts over shakes and grilled over fried these days. And many food manufacturers have reconfigured their recipes to eliminate trans fats, the most unhealthful unsaturated fats made of partially hydrogenated oils.
But especially for children, what's to eat is not completely a matter of choice. Legislators in California and elsewhere are giving closer scrutiny to school food. In 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District was one of the first school districts in the country to ban soda, candy and other high-fat snack foods from school vending machines as of July 2004. The next year the school board decided to reduce sodium, sugar and fat in school lunches. At the federal level, there are proposals in the farm bill to spend an additional $3 billion over five years on fruits and vegetables for school programs.
A California law banning sugary drinks and limiting the fat and sugar content of foods sold in middle and high schools took effect in July. And the state enacted legislation last year to increase the purchase of fruits and vegetables to be sold in corner stores in lower-income communities.
Rep. Mary Bono (R-Palm Springs) introduced a bill in Congress in June that, among other things, would try to increase the availability of nutritious foods in economically depressed areas.
Regulations by cities
Some cities already regulate fast-food restaurants in certain areas, including Berkeley and Arcata, Calif.
Port Jefferson, N.Y.; Concord, Mass.; and Calistoga, Calif., ban fast-food restaurants in certain districts entirely, according to L.A. city planner Faisal Roble, who drafted Perry's ordinance.
But those earlier regulations are primarily tied to aesthetics or to the protection of smaller businesses, rather than to health concerns, said David Gay, L.A.'s principal city planner.
Perry's ordinance -- a moratorium intended to give the city time to come up with a long-term plan -- would, if passed, affect more than 700,000 residents of South Los Angeles, including West Adams, Baldwin Hills and Leimert Park.
Compared with the Westside, for example, that area has far fewer restaurants -- about 900 versus 2,200, according to The Times' analysis. And about 45% of the restaurants in South Los Angeles are fast-food chains or restaurants with minimal seating, compared with 16% on the Westside.