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Lessons From the 'Failed' Fast Food Ban

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Photo:isengardt/Flickr/Creative Commons License

In 2008, the city of Los Angeles passed a bill that tried to address the health issues of residents in South L.A., a part of the city with the lowest income and the highest rate of obesity. The law tried to combat the obesity problem by putting a freeze on fast food chains opening up new franchises in the area. The goal was to allow low income neighborhoods greater access to healthy and affordable foods without being overwhelmed by the glut of fast food chains.

It was not without controversy. The restaurant industry said this was the beginning of the end of business in L.A., arguing that the law should be dismissed on grounds of racial discrimination. Health advocates said that sitting around and doing nothing would only escalate the devastation. Turns out, all that shouting was for nothing: The ban did just about nothing.

A new study by the RAND Corporation dug into the research to see if the ban had any effect on the population it was trying to help. The verdict:

"The South Los Angeles fast food ban may have symbolic value, but it has had no measurable impact in improving diets or reducing obesity," said Roland Sturm, lead author of the study.

In fact, the obesity rates in that part of L.A. grew faster than anywhere else in the city; 63% of people were overweight or obese in 2007, and 75% were in 2011. (The one positive was that during the ban, soft drink consumption dropped; however, it decreased in rates similar to the rest of Los Angeles, meaning that the ban had no significant effect on that either.) But that doesn't mean that the plot is without its lessons.

Part of the problem was that the ban was a flawed law in the first place. It was like trying to stop a flood with duct tape. The only power it had was to keep new franchises from opening up. And this, mind you, is an area already inundated with them, so putting a stop to new ones didn't decrease access to fast food. Even if the bill worked perfectly as written, all we could've expected was for obesity numbers to remain consistent. Expecting any improvement was a mistake.

The law also only focused on classic fast food chains like Jack In The Box, McDonald's, and Burger King. (And then, only as "stand-alone structures," allowing those corporations to still open franchises in strip malls.) It never mentioned supermarkets, where a large portion of high-calorie, low-nutrition foods are found. The study's author writes:

"[The ban's failure] should not come as a surprise: Most food outlets in the area are small food stores or small restaurants with limited seating that are not affected by the policy."

The whole bill, frankly, lacked any real teeth. It's not as if the city could have done much else; it was struggle enough to get any version of the bill passed. But the problem is that the city tried to solve a financial problem without attempting to change the finances.

See, it's not a surprise that the lowest income neighborhoods have the highest rates of obesity. You can point out concepts like food deserts or lower levels of education, but those are second-generation extrapolations that complicate the problem. The biggest reason is that low income neighborhoods have low income. Hoping people change their spending habits on food without tweaking the amount of money they're spending is an act of futility.

Instead, what needs more support are programs like the Double Value Coupon and MarketMatch, both of which allow EBT users to get extra value if they use them at farmer's markets. (As in, EBT users can buy $5 worth of McDonald's or $10 worth of farmer's market produce for the same price.) A similar "healthy rebates" plan has already showed to have an effect in South Africa. It's not a complex idea: Bring the price of quality food below the cost of Wendy's Dollar Menu, and people will buy more of the former.

(Not to say the "fast food chain moratorium" way about doing things isn't to be used in certain situations. Just that asking for it to be the solution is misguided.)

The point is, the "failure" of this law is not proof that the government needs to stop encouraging people to make better eating choices. All it shows is that a law without actual power to change things won't change anything. But we already knew that.

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