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

'Food deserts'

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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According to a state assessment of children's health in Prince George's in 2002, nearly 40 percent of children ages 2 to 11 were overweight. Most were in lower-income families. The study said 33 percent of adolescents had eaten three or more meals at a fast-food restaurant in the previous week.

A report prepared by RAND Health for the County Council last year found that Prince George's residents were more likely to be obese and diabetic than those elsewhere in Maryland and in the District. The county ranked lower than Baltimore and the District in hypertension but higher than the District in heart disease.

Harrington said the bill is not about putting fast-food restaurants out of business.

"We're saying where there is health data that suggests that there should be interventions that we should put a stop to permits," Harrington said. The restriction would not affect license renewals.

Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, said that the legislation and effort by community activists address what she calls "food deserts," or areas were there is "inequitable access to healthy food."

Harrington's legislation is similar to a bill passed in 2008 in Los Angeles, where city officials approved a one-year ban on new fast-food restaurants in the southern part of the city. The ban was extended last year through this March. Supporters say the bill's aim was twofold: to draw more sit-down restaurants and grocery stores to the area and to give residents more healthy options. A Los Angeles Times analysis found that about 45 percent of the restaurants in South Los Angeles were fast-food chains or had minimal seating.

"I'm trying to encourage diversity of development," said Los Angeles City Council member Jan Perry, who sponsored the measure. "There is a lack of grocery stores, sit-down restaurants and healthy choices. We needed to open the door to get those things."

But even Prince George's Health Officer Donald Shell, who describes the effort as worthwhile, said it can be a tricky balance.

"You don't want to stop economic development, but you don't want to put citizens at risk to make poor decisions," he said.

A matter of choice

There are plenty of critics -- including hamburger lovers and government lobbyists -- who say that this is not an area where lawmakers should be inserting themselves.

"People aren't going to stop going to McDonald's," said Dominique Cox of Oxon Hill, sitting with an order of Chicken McNuggets at a McDonald's on Central Avenue in Landover. "It's quick and easy."

Across the street at a Wendy's, Bill Edwards of Baltimore chomped down on a Baconator Double with cheese and an order of fries during his lunch break. He said the fast-food efforts interfere with free enterprise and personal responsibility.

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