Pr. George's leader wants to curb county's fast-food eateries

Community activist Arthur Turner negotiated with a developer to bring an alternative to a fast-food restaurant in a project planned in Capitol Heights.
Community activist Arthur Turner negotiated with a developer to bring an alternative to a fast-food restaurant in a project planned in Capitol Heights. (Mark Gail/the Washington Post)
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By Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Travel along a two-block stretch of Central Avenue in Prince George's County, and you'll find a staggering 11 fast-food restaurants.

For community activist Arthur Turner and state Sen. David C. Harrington (D-Prince George's), the strip is evidence of the proliferation of burger joints and Chinese takeouts in the county, especially in poorer, inner Capital Beltway communities.

Pointing to studies that rank Prince George's residents among the least healthy in Maryland, Turner and Harrington want to limit new fast-food restaurants in the county, a far stricter approach than what has been enacted in such places as New York City and Montgomery County, which banned the use of trans fats in those establishments.

Turner and Harrington say they are concerned that the restaurants contribute to high occurrences of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease and have taken separate paths to deal with the issue.

Turner is negotiating with individual developers, and Harrington has introduced a bill in the General Assembly that would impose a moratorium on issuing licenses to new fast-food businesses.

"Our county is inundated with unhealthy food choices," Turner said. "In some areas, if someone wants a healthy choice, there are no options. We want healthy options in our community."

Opponents of such efforts say that what people eat is a matter of personal choice and that it should be up to the free market to determine which restaurant goes where.

That hasn't stopped Turner and his group, the Coalition of Central Prince George's Community Organizations. They recently negotiated with Zimmer Development, a North Carolina-based company, to keep fast-food restaurants out of a project it wants to build off Central Avenue in Capitol Heights. Instead of a McDonald's or a Checkers, the developer plans to bring in a Panera Bread or a Chipotle.

Turner said that his group identified Panera Bread and Chipotle as preferable alternatives to a fast-food burger restaurant and that he plans to seek similar compromises with other developers.

"I'm not saying it's healthy, but it's more healthy," said Turner, who said he thinks the access to french fries has contributed to his weight struggle. "You don't see any deep fryers in Panera."

The bill that Harrington introduced this month would prohibit Prince George's from issuing new licenses to fast-food restaurants in areas with a "high index of health disparities," which show how frequently a disease affects a group. The Maryland Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities would be required to create a process to map the indexes in the county, but the legislation does not define what a fast-food restaurant is.

Harrington said he is motivated by what he sees as the "epidemic proportions of obesity" among children in the county.

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