Los Angeles Fast-Food Ban: A Load of Bologna

A year ago, the Los Angeles City Council decided it must do something about the high rate of obesity in South Los Angeles, an impoverished neighborhood that was previously called South Central.  (After the area developed a bad reputation for gangs and violence and riots, the city chose the obvious solution:  rename it.)  So the council passed legislation that bans opening or expanding fast-food restaurants in the area.

Of course, they couldn’t use the term fast food.  That’s the kind of clear, simple language that lawyers and politicians can’t grasp.  (Most politicians are lawyers, by the way, so go figure.)  To make the ban sound all high-falutin’ and legalistic and important, they banned restaurants characterized by “excessive signage, little or no landscaping, large expanses of surface parking, drive-through windows, multiple driveways, parking lots fronting the street,” etc., etc., blah-blah-blah.

Genius.  The ban hasn’t done diddly, of course — and won’t — but it did serve one important purpose:  it satisfied the congenital need of politicians to do something! whenever they see a problem.  As the old saying goes, when you’re holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Before getting into the economic and nutritional stupidity of this ban, I’m going to risk receiving some hate mail by actually acknowledging the elephant in the room:  racism.  South Los Angeles is populated almost exclusively by African-Americans and Hispanics.  Telling them they can’t have any more fast-food restaurants in their neighborhoods is paternalistic and insulting.  It’s rooted in the notion that they can’t make smart decisions for themselves, and therefore need a government nanny to hide the cookie jar.

Insult aside, fast food clearly isn’t the problem. As a recent study by the non-profit Rand Corporation pointed out, fast-food restaurants are no more prevalent in South Los Angeles than in other areas of the city.  In fact, there are actually fewer of them:

Researchers found there were about 19 fast-food chain restaurants per 100,000 residents in South Los Angeles, while there were 29 per 100,000 people in affluent West Los Angeles and 30 per 100,000 residents for all of Los Angeles County. There are significantly fewer restaurants of any type per person in South Los Angeles compared to Los Angeles County overall, according to the study.

Wait … you mean restaurants don’t flock to areas where people have little disposable income?  Well, I am shocked.

If you don’t know Los Angeles, the west side is wealthy and mostly white.  It’s where a lot of people making show-biz money live.  Beverly Hills and Century City — an area dense with luxury high-rises and corporate offices — are both on the west side.  Frankly, I’m surprised the concentration of fast-food restaurants is so high there, but apparently it is.

Strangely, the city council doesn’t consider all those fast-food establishments a threat to the health of affluent white people.  They don’t worry that people driving home from posh jobs in Century City will be drawn, zombie-like, to detour through the golden arches and order french fries and milkshakes. 

But when the city council sees a high rate of obesity on the south side, they decide the poor darlings just can’t help themselves and must be delivered from the temptation of fast food.  Take away their Big Macs, and they’ll immediately decide they like grilled salmon with a side of broccoli.

Now, on to the economic stupidity:  One of the stated goals of the ban was to encourage more sit-down restaurants to move into South Los Angeles.  I’m always amazed, and more than a little appalled, when small groups of politicians get together and decide they know more about a particular industry than the people who actually work in that industry do. (But enough about the GM bailout.)

If there were a market for more sit-down restaurants in South Los Angeles, the sit-down restaurants would already be there.  They aren’t sitting on the sidelines, champing at the bit, just waiting for the Los Angeles City council to create an opening for them by forbidding McDonald’s from opening another franchise.  If they aren’t locating in South Los Angeles, it’s because their market research has concluded it’s not a good idea.

Finally, the nutritional stupidity:  You could replace every fast-food joint in Los Angeles with a sit-down restaurant, and it wouldn’t make a dent in the rate of obesity.  As I discovered while researching Fat Head, people actually eat bigger meals in sit-down restaurants than they do at fast-food restaurants.  Can you say “Bloomin’ Onion”?  Order one of those, split it three ways, and you’ve already consumed 800 calories and 80 carbohydrates … then your dinner arrives.  The steakhouse I frequented in Burbank offers a free cookie after dinner that contains more calories and carbohydrates than a Quarter Pounder and a large order of fries.

Okay then, perhaps the city council should forbid restaurants from locating in poor neighborhoods altogether, right?  Wrong.  As the Rand study pointed out, people in South Los Angeles don’t eat in restaurants any more often than their leaner counterparts in more affluent areas.  But they buy a disproportionate share of their food and drinks at small stores … in other words, convenience stores that sell mostly sugar and starch.

Aha!  That’s it, then.  The city council should outlaw min-marts and make those poor people buy all their food in real grocery stores!  Wrong again.  People don’t buy sugar and starch because that’s what they find in mini-marts; they go to mini-marts because that’s where they can easily find sugar and starch.

People who like sugar and starch buy sugar and starch, no matter where they shop.  I’ve lived in a handful of cities, I’ve traveled all over the country, and I’ve seen countless people buying food with food stamps.  Their grocery carts were almost always full of noodles, chips, cereals, bread, potatoes, sodas, and sugar-laden snacks.  Those are the cheapest foods. 

You can eat sugar and starch in your car, in your kitchen, in a restaurant, standing up, sitting down, lying on your side, doing cartwheels, or while reciting the Declaration of Independence, and it isn’t going to make any difference.  They’re fattening foods.  Banning one source of them isn’t going to change anything.

Fast-food restaurants are convenient target, but shooting at the wrong target doesn’t get the job done.  Banning McDonald’s and other fast-food joints from poor neighborhoods won’t make poor people any leaner.  But it will create another tribute to the economic stupidity of legislators … namely, it will deprive a lot of unskilled but work-minded teenagers of their first job opportunities, with at least the possibility of moving into management someday.

Are they better off living on food stamps?  I don’t think so.

(Hat tip to Mike Eades, who tweeted the article about the Rand study.)

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16 thoughts on “Los Angeles Fast-Food Ban: A Load of Bologna

  1. Halle

    I love to recommend your doco to people who want to hate on fast food. I still eat a value meal double cheese now and then — of course, I peel off both buns first…

    During one of the poorest times in my life, I lived in a one room rental with no kitchen. Of course, I had a tiny fridge, a micro and a coffeemaker, but there is a lot of food you can’t cook without more of a kitchen. The neighborhood was depressed and even most of the fast food places had closed. (there was a donut shop that was open from 6am to 6pm, 7 days a week, but one can only eat just so many donuts.) The only other place open and within walking distance on Sunday was a quickie mart. The prices were flagrantly abusive, but what were we going to do? No car, no public transport, no way to get to a grocery (and back then there really weren’t a lot of 24 hour groceries anyways.) So you bought what you could afford to buy. Yes, there were days I did consider the cans of catfood. No, I never did eat one.

    I have no judgment in my heart for people who are struggling to survive. I would have LOVED to be able to go into a McD’s and get a double cheese for $1. Hot, nutritious food ready now. You can’t go to any sit down place I know and get anything similar for just a dollar.

    BTW I love your blog!

    Very good point. It’s not gourmet food, it’s not pasture-fed meat, but you can load up on protein for a buck, two bucks if you order two of them. Toss the buns, and it’s not a bad meal.

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  2. Vin - NaturalBias

    People who are well off are just as capable of making poor decisions. Think of all the people who live in big houses and drive luxury cars but complain about the expense of organic produce and pasture raised meat. This creates quite the predicament because some politicians and lawyers fall into this category themselves.

    It would be interesting to see how many people who support a silly ban like this are overweight and unhealthy themselves.

    I’ve had quite a few debates over the years with people who blame McDonald’s for obesity, and I’ll usually ask something like, “So you’re telling me you don’t know fries and shakes and sodas are fattening?” Funny how the answer is always some variation of “Well, of course, I know better, but THOSE PEOPLE …”

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  3. Gayle Jordan

    Tom –

    Thanks for a great article – well-reasoned and very articulate and on point.
    I work in a gym, so I eavesdrop on lots of conversations about food, and the prevailing attitude about fast food is that fit people are oh-so-much-better than fast food people.

    I’ve become a food snob myself, but like the first commentor said, I judge not anyone who selects fast food for WHATEVER reason. Healthy choices can be made in the mini-mart, the drive-thru, the grocery store, the kitchen, and the sit-down restaurant. It’s about WHAT you are eating, not where you are eating it.

    Loved the movie, love the blog – keep up the fabulous work!

    Exactly right. There’s nothing about “fast” that makes food bad. And as Jacob Sullum pointed out in the film, some people have different values. I know people who fully understand the dangers of sugar, but choose to eat lots of it anyway. That’s their choice.

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  4. tina

    Wow that is scary! I remember a few months back a wacko Mississippi politician was trying to pass a law that would ban people whose BMI was over a certain number from entering ANY restaurant. Luckily the idea faded away. I really want the government to stay out of our food decisions.

    That law in Mississippi would’ve banned Tim Tebow of the Florida Gators from eating in a restaurant. How’s that for stupid?

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  5. Wanda

    I’d love to see someone eat anything while cartwheeling… 🙂 Another great post. Almost as bad as the soda tax.

    I’m pretty sure my oldest daughter could eat while cartwheeling, but I’m not going to encourage her to try.

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  6. Paula

    Just yesterday I watched a documentary that focused on peak oil and what’s going to happen to the large cities when they can’t truck in cheap foods.

    In 1992, the City of LA gave South Central 14 acres to plant a community garden. There were 362 plots and 362 impoverished families who worked those plots. They grew fruits, veggies, medicinal herbs…everything! It was really a sight to see. Well, then the city of LA decided to renege on their gift and they took the land back. The people protested, but in the end, the bulldozers came and just tore up their wonderful community garden. It was really shameful. The least the city could have done was wait until fall and the harvest was over.

    So what does the City of LA want? They ban the fast food where a person can get a cheap-o hamburger. They tear down their community gardens where people could get healthy food grown themselves. It’s a lose lose situation.

    I’ve given up trying to find a logical explanation for anything goofy politicians do.

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  7. Michael

    Great post! I was laughing and shaking my head at the same time. Ugh! The state really should mind your own business. But I just have to say you give nannies a bad name by referring to legislators as nannies. 🙂

    Nannies make voluntary arrangements with people who hire them because they see it as a mutually beneficial relationship. Politicos do nothing of the sort. They force their agenda down your throat whether the motivation is pure paternalism or racism or a combination thereof.

    Telling them they can’t have any more fast-food restaurants in their neighborhoods is paternalistic and insulting. It’s rooted in the notion that they can’t make smart decisions for themselves, and therefore need a government nanny to hide the cookie jar.

    But that is the nature of politics whether in South Los Angeles or West Los Angeles. The only difference is the issues.

    Michael

    Good point: we hire nannies on purpose, although “nanny state” is a common term. The paternalistic attitude is quite common among California politicians, which is part of why we bolted the state. And I just read in the paper this week that yet another company is leaving California for Tennessee, so we’re not alone.

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  8. TonyNZ

    On the mark as always.

    On an unrelated note, I tried to post this yesterday but it didn’t work…

    Testosterone is the male sex hormone.

    Testosterone is made from cholesterol.

    People are going more and more on cholesterol lowering drugs.

    Men are needing more and more medication for “dysfunctions”.

    o_O

    (I suspect your spam-killer thought I was trying to sell certain medications whose tradenames were written in the first post. Certain medications that seem to make up a disproportionate amount of the spam industry…)

    You’re right, it was sitting in the spam folder. Probably the brand names flagged it. I wish Askimet had an approved-commenter function for people I trust. But it beats having to delete 300 junk comments every day.

    I agree about the statins leading to ED drugs. It’s also been shown that saturated fat encourages production of testosterone, so the anti-fat movement hasn’t helped, either.

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  9. KD

    People don’t buy sugar and starch because that’s what they find in mini-marts; they go to mini-marts because that’s where they can easily find sugar and starch.

    Before I avoided sugar, I would go out of my way, literally, to satisfy my cravings if I had to. People who live in one area aren’t limited to the food choices found in that area if it’s possible to go to another. LA is big, but it ain’t that big if you’re a carb addict.

    Additionally, when I was at my heaviest and still gaining weight, I ate rather little fast food. Maybe some would argue that I’m unique, but my weight gain came from making homemade cookies and eating far more cookies in one sitting than one ever should, not from restaurant or fast food meals. I guess the solution to that is that the government should ration ALL food to make sure I only ate the number of calories I should have, right?

    Don’t give them any ideas.

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  10. ArrowSmith

    One has to wonder whether we’ve reached a tipping point in America were nanny-state-ism has usurped the notion of freedom.

    If Thomas Jefferson were alive today, he’d soon die of shame.

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  11. shel

    what drives me bonkers is that both conservatives and social liberals have a kind of innate need to flex their collective moral muscle and urge to control; whether its the pothead, the tobacco smoker, the hooker or someone driving without a seatbelt.

    the puritan becomes the inquisitor, and the unhealthy act becomes the sinful and then just illegal. the line is always erased and redrawn arbitrarily from time to time…

    …and our time is the age of Mommystate. human nature is funny.

    and yup, anyone with a modicum of common sense and cynicism understands that nobody wins with the state. this issue isn’t about helping the poor; its about controlling the poor: those who are the most easily controlled, in certain neighborhoods, while everybody else gets to eat wherever and whatever they wish. its perverse on a few levels.

    looking at the big picture, one must ask “is the Western world losing its concept of individual sovereignty?”

    The Western world has been slowly losing its sense of individual sovereignty for nearly 70 years. When governments can pass laws like these without being laughed out of office, we’re in trouble … not to mention ordering people to buy a product (health insurance) while also ordering another group of people to subsidize the purchase. I can’t imagine which clause of the Constitution could possibly allow for that one.

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  12. Ms. X

    Well, it looks like they won’t even be going to the mini marts for long.

    http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-stores12-2009oct12,0,2469583.story

    “Motivated by new data focusing on convenience stores, civic activists and a City Council member favor limiting the development of new convenience stores.”

    What exactly are they supposed to do? Maybe what the city is really trying to do is solve the excess number of unwanted pets. What other option is there?

    I wish I could say I’m surprised, but I’m not. So now they’re also going to order those stores to sell fruits and vegetables. Nothing like having a bunch of politicians tell a business what they should be selling. So I guess in order to stay in business, those stores will have to stock fruits and vegetables they can’t sell and will end up tossing out.

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  13. TonyNZ

    “Motivated by new data focusing on convenience stores, civic activists and a City Council member favor limiting the development of new convenience stores.”

    Back in my eat everything and anything days, I went to supermarkets because they had the same sugary starchy stuff as convenience stores, but they had bigger and cheaper packages off it. Using my ‘functioning brain’ I thought I was getting value for money doing it this way.

    Unless it is different in the states, I don’t see how reducing mini-marts could do anything but have the opposite of desired effect. People are forced to go to the supermarket, where they get a half pound of chocolate and half a gallon of soda for the same price they would get a 2 oz chocolate bar and 12 fl oz can of soda at a mini-mart.

    Mini-marts are a rip off, so wouldn’t this inherently restrict consumption?

    As usual, they’re confusing cause and effect. Mini-marts sell sugar and starch because that what people buy. You’re exactly right; they’ll just load up on the grocery store. So I guess in a year or so, they’ll order stores to stop carrying the stuff.

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  14. Alexia

    Good stuff. I have to agree with ArrowSmith – it seems the politicians are having more fun being our parents than in making sure we are all FREE.

    Really, if they would concern themselves with all the chemicals and CRAP they are allowing to be labeled and sold as food we’d be better off.

    It’d be nice to be able to easily find the good stuff instead of searching an entire grocery store for the one item that is real.

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  15. Halle

    I suppose I should also say my favorite item that I used to get at the convenience store were cans of vienna sausages. Those can be eaten out of the can cold, but they can also be warmed up in the can in a hot pot or in a cup in the micro. NO, not the best form of protein and fat, but the nutritional profile blows away spaghetti-o’s (the other commonly available foodlike canned thing often found in quickie marts) So I totally agree that while most convenience stores I know of have far more wheat, starch and sugar foods than foods made primarily of protein and fat but if you LOOOOK you can usually find something better than bag-o-starch. So it is always about choice, and if you know better you can make better choices.

    Exactly the point I was trying to make by going on a fast-food diet. People have complained in reviews that I didn’t eat fast food the way most people do, which means they missed the point. It’s about choices, at home or at McDonald’s or at 7-11.

    Reply

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