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Fast food's link to obesity in South L.A. is challenged

FAST FOOD

Rand study says the density of eateries per capita is less in South L.A. than in other parts of the city. Limiting soda and snacks would work better than banning new restaurants, a researcher says.

October 06, 2009|Jerry Hirsch

A regulation banning the establishment of new fast-food restaurants in South Los Angeles is unlikely to curb obesity rates, according to a study by researchers at Santa Monica think tank Rand Corp.

Concerned about high levels of obesity, the lack of traditional grocery stores and a proliferation of fast-food eateries, the Los Angeles City Council approved a moratorium on new fast-food restaurants in one of the poorest sections of the city last year. It has extended the ban through March of next year.

"We argue that the premises for the ban were questionable," Roland Sturm and Deborah Cohen write in today's online edition of the journal Health Affairs.

The study was based on InfoUSA business data and a survey of 1,480 Los Angeles County residents. It was funded by the National Institutes of Health, with no financial support from the fast-food industry, Sturm said.

Contrary to "conventional wisdom," the density of fast-food chain restaurants per capita is actually less in South Los Angeles than in other parts of the city, said Sturm, a Rand senior economist.

"If you look at it per 100,000 residents, the area is not overrun with McDonald's," Sturm said. "The story about fast-food chains does not hold up."

Though the authors noted that obesity takes a "disproportionate toll on minority populations, especially among African American and Hispanic youth" who live in South Los Angeles, limiting the type of restaurants that move to the area isn't likely to solve the problem.

Policy choices such as forcing restaurants to print calorie and nutrition information on their menus and reducing the availability of snack food and sodas is likely to be more effective in combating obesity than restricting the areas where fast-food establishments can open, Strum said.

One outside nutrition expert was not surprised by the findings.

"What we know already, and this study confirms, is that people living in poor inner-city areas do not have easy access to healthful, affordable food, especially fresh food. Lack of food access is highly correlated with diet-related health conditions," said Marion Nestle, nutrition professor at New York University.

Though she doesn't object to the type of moratorium Los Angeles enacted, Nestle said there are plenty of other things the city can do "to encourage more healthful food consumption in low-income areas." She said cities could start with improving nutrition and nutrition education in schools as well as encouraging farmers markets, fruit-and-vegetable carts and community gardens.

Patricia Williams, a McDonald's franchise owner with nine restaurants in Southern California, including South Los Angeles, said, "There are some neighborhoods in South Los Angeles that would probably benefit from a McDonald's. So the moratorium should be looked at on a case-by-case basis."

Almost 26% of the residents of South Los Angeles are considered obese, according to the study. That compares with about 18% of the residents of Los Angeles County who live in higher-income neighborhoods, the study's authors wrote.

They found that the far wealthier West Los Angeles has 29 fast-food chain establishments, 14 small food stores and 10 large supermarkets per 100,000 residents. South Los Angeles, by comparison, has 19 fast-food chain restaurants, 58 small food stores and three large grocery stores.

The authors said those data were at odds with "media reports about an over-concentration of fast-food establishments" in South Los Angeles.

Among those reports, the study cited a chart that accompanied a July 30, 2008, story in The Times. The chart said fast-food establishments represented 45% of all restaurants in South Los Angeles. That was a higher percentage than in any other section of the city.

Doug Smith, The Times' director of computer-assisted reporting, who analyzed the data, said the different findings arose from the newspaper study's including small independent restaurants with seating for 10 or fewer people. The Rand study focused primarily on fast-food chains -- leading to a smaller count.

Councilman Bernard C. Parks, whose 8th District includes part of the area where the moratorium is in force, took exception to the Rand report.

"Anybody who in the year 2010 thinks they can compare South Los Angeles to West Los Angeles is going to be faulty. You just can't make comparisons between the two communities," said Parks, who is a proponent of the ban.

He said his 8th District desperately needed more sit-down restaurants, supermarkets and other sellers of fresh food and produce.

"We are the most underserved community in L.A. for everything but fast food. There are a parade of people who have to leave the 8th District to purchase their basic food and household needs," Parks said.

South Los Angeles is often labeled a "food desert" because of its lack of large traditional grocery stores that are the typical source of healthful foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables.

However, the study found no difference in fruit and vegetable consumption between residents of South Los Angeles and people in other areas. Likewise, there was no difference in the proportion of people who participate in 300 minutes of exercise or more per week.

Residents of both West and South Los Angeles tend to eat out about 3.5 times a week, though South Los Angeles residents are more likely to obtain food from a food cart or truck rather than a sit-down restaurant, the study said. South Los Angeles residents also were likely to watch more television.

The Rand researchers attributed the greater likelihood of South Los Angeles residents to be obese to their consuming more snacks and sodas than people who lived in other areas.

"Snacks usually don't come from a restaurant," Sturm said. "They typically come from stores and vending machines."

--

jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

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