By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 13, 2008
LOS ANGELES, July 12 -- Citing alarming rates of childhood obesity and a poverty of healthful eating choices, a city councilwoman is pushing for a moratorium on new fast-food restaurants in South-Central Los Angeles.
"Some people will say, 'Well, people just don't have to eat it,' " said Jan Perry, the Democrat who represents the city's overwhelmingly African American and Latino District 9. "But the fact of the matter is, what if you have no other choices?"
The proposed ordinance, which takes a page from boutique communities that turn up their noses at franchises, is supported by nutritionists, frustrated residents and community activists who call restrictive zoning an appropriate response to "food apartheid."
"There's one set of food for one part of the city, another set of food for another part of the city, and it's very stratified that way," said Marqueece Harris-Dawson, executive director of Community Coalition, based in South-Central.
The activist group has focused on land use in the economically depressed neighborhoods south of downtown, working to shutter 200 liquor stores and a dozen motels on the premise that "nuisance businesses" encourage violence and crime while crowding out wholesome alternatives. The fresh, healthful fare that defines "California cuisine" remains almost impossible to find on a gritty landscape of corner carryouts and franchises.
"You try to get a salad within 20 minutes of our location; it's virtually impossible," said Harris-Dawson.
Perry quoted research showing that although 16 percent of restaurants in prosperous West L.A. serve fast food, they account for 45 percent in South L.A. Experts see an obvious link to a health department study that found that 29 percent of South-Central children are obese, compared with 23 percent county-wide.
"I was working in one of these places before: It was french fries, french fries and french fries and french fries," said Tony Dubon, 46. "They ought to offer a grape or something."
Polishing his minivan at the corner of Slauson and Vermont avenues -- where the dining options were KFC/Hot Wings, Taco Bell/Pizza Hut, McDonald's and, on the fourth corner, Quiznos -- Dubon said he walks home and cooks a plate of eggs rather than eat at any of them.
"All the good food is kind of outside of the community," said Shawn Jordan, 38, selling T-shirts and sunglasses on the sidewalk with Omar Malik, who shook his head.
"You get tired; you get hungry," said Malik, 31. "The first three bites be good, and then you're like, yech, disgusting."
"There's no choice," said Jessica Quintana, 15, leaving McDonald's after a lunch of a fried chicken sandwich, fries and a soda. "It was nasty, but I ate it 'cause I'm hungry."
With two fellow council members, Perry also assembled an incentive package aimed at attracting supermarkets and sit-down restaurants. And she backs efforts to bring fresh fruit and vegetables to corner stores.
But the proposed move against fast food is what brought attention -- and, from the California Restaurant Association, sharp concern. The trade group last week filed suit against San Francisco for requiring some chain restaurants to list calories, saturated fat, carbohydrates and sodium on their menus.
Warming to the challenge, city attorney Dennis Herrera issued a statement calling the 59-page complaint "nearly as bloated as Burger King's Triple Whopper Sandwich with Cheese (1,230 calories, 82 grams of fat)." Further noting that a federal judge upheld a similar regulation in New York after a trade group asserted that it violated the First Amendment, Herrera termed the irony "as rich as an order of Outback Steakhouse Aussie Cheese Fries with Ranch Dressing (2,900 calories, 182 grams of fat)."
In Los Angeles, what alarmed the trade group was Perry's use of the words "moratorium" and "obesity."
"You know, that powerful language does a lot of damage to the industry," said lobbyist Andrew Casana. He said the terms might no longer be appropriate after Perry revised the language to permit chains such as Marie Callender's.
"You can't play the obesity card and then invite in a place that sells pies," Casana said.
Perry said her proposal, which is awaiting a committee hearing, hit a raw nerve outside her constituency. "I've been called a fascist, a nanny-stater," she said.
But researchers and activists praised the strategy as a cutting-edge application of government power to promote health.
"As far as we're aware, it's fairly precedent-setting," said Mark Vallianatos, director of the Center for Food and Justice at Occidental College. "It's an important public statement on how planning intersects with food health.
"The solution is also grocery stores and improving corner stores, and how do farmers markets survive in low-income areas? And whatever else we can do to make sure this generation isn't the first since the Industrial Revolution to have a lower life expectancy than their parents."