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

By Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 26, 2010; A01

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.

'Food deserts'

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.

"It's a free country," said Edwards, who works in Prince George's. "Everybody has a choice to go into any restaurant that they want to go into, and everybody should be able to have a choice to open a restaurant anywhere they want to, unless it's zoned residential or something."

Melvin R. Thompson, senior vice president of government affairs and public policy for the Restaurant Association of Maryland, said that although the organization does not have specifics about Harrington's bill, it disagrees with the concept.

"We have serious concerns and are strongly opposed to any legislation that attempts to address health issues by banning certain kinds of businesses as opposed to focusing on efforts to educate and encourage consumers to eat responsibly, engage in exercise and live a balanced and healthy lifestyle," Thompson said.

Harrington said he knows that a fast-food ban is not a cure-all for obesity.

"We need recreation centers, physical education in schools, menus changed in schools," Harrington said. "This alone is not going to curb the data we're seeing, but it moves the agenda forward."

Sen. Douglas J.J. Peters (D-Prince George's), chairman of the county's delegation in his chamber, said that he is open to discussing the issue. The delegation must approve the bill, and then it would have to approved by committee before it could go to the General Assembly for a vote.

"We have been very sensitive to the nutrition value in the schools, and this would be an extension of that," Peters said. "We have to help guide people to have more options. I think we'd have a healthy discussion."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company