L.A.’s fast-food drive-by: a city council’s ban on fast-food chains is a provocative social experiment

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At a Jack in the Box fast-food outlet in South Los Angeles one recent Sunday morning, Tatiana Burkhardt, an obese 21-year-old nursing assistant, lumbers toward a plate of bulletproof glass that protects employees from customers, and orders a Jumbo Jack burger, a large Natural-Cut Fries and a 32-oz. “medium” Sprite through the intercom. Retrieving her meal–all 1,150 calories of it, almost half from fat-via a slot in the glass, Burkhardt sits down and carefully picks a reddish substance from her Jumbo Jack. “I don’t eat fastfood tomatoes,” she says. Such are the culinary challenges in a neighbourhood long considered the most troubled in the United States–South L.A., a sprawling, dilapidated cityscape where, apart from the risks of getting robbed or shot, the perils can be dietary. The birthplace of the Bloods and Crips and home to the 1992 Rodney King riots is also a “food desert,” a term adopted by social policy planners in the 1990s to describe the growing number of low-income areas with poor access to healthy, affordable food.

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A controversial ordinance passed into law last week proposes to change that. The legislation, unanimously approved by L.A. city council, effectively bans fast-food chains from opening in South L.A. for a year, with the option of two six-month extensions. The moratorium, coupled with a package of incentives, hopes to draw more sit-down restaurants and grocery stores to the district.

For California to enforce the world’s first fast-food ban is ironic. This, after all, is where drive-throughs were popularized in the 1950s. But it’s not surprising given the state’s status as a trendsetter in all matters edible–from Wolfgang Puck’s smoked salmon pizza to dietary policing. In 2004, L.A.’s Unified School District became one of the first in the U.S. to ban soft drinks, candy and other high-fat snack foods from school vending machines. This month, the state became the first in the country to ban artificial trans fat in all restaurant food as of 2010, following the lead of many local governments, including New York City. Zoning of fast food in itself isn’t new; in the past, though, it has been at the behest of affluent communities offended by the traffic and pollution, garish aesthetics or the threat the outlets presented to local businesses and property values. Concord, Mass., has banned drive-through and fast-food restaurants, as have the California resort towns Carmel-by-the-Sea and Calistoga. (The City of Toronto has similarly restricted drive-throughs in residential neighbourhoods.)

What makes the South L.A. ordinance groundbreaking is the fact it restricts fast food for public health reasons. (New York City councilman Joel Rivera proposed a similar ban in 2006 but it was shot down.) And this 83-sq.-km district that’s home to 720,000, most black and Hispanic, 28 per cent of whom live below the poverty line, would appear to present the perfect test case: nowhere is the twinning of super-sized meals and super-sized people more overt. Nearly one out of two restaurants is a fast-food outlet. Amid fading murals celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, and the vivid colours of its Latino storefronts, the rundown streetscape serves up a monotonous sequence of McDonald’s, Burger Kings, Carl’s Jrs. and Kentucky Fried Chickens. The poverty is palpable. Many mom-and-pop fast-food operations serving Southern cooking advertise they accept food stamps. South L.A. includes some high-income communities that can afford better, but “the pathology of lower income has dominated,” says Faisal Roble, the L.A. city planner who drafted the ordinance.

A study released in the spring by L.A.’s Department of Public Health found 30 per cent of adults here are obese, compared to the national rate of 21 per cent. South L.A. also boasts the country’s highest incidence of diabetes–11.7 per cent compared to a countrywide average of 8.1 per cent. “We have a community that is probably the sickest in L.A. County,” says Gwendolyn Flynn, policy director for the Community Health Councils, or CHC, a non-profit agency.

Buying fresh food is difficult. There’s a scant 6.8 retail food outlets for every 100,000 residents, or one supermarket, local grocer or convenience store for every 6,000 people, according to a report prepared by the CHC in April. Adjacent neighbourhoods in West Los Angeles, meanwhile, boasted 26.6 retail food outlets for every 100,000 residents. Only five per cent of South L.A.’s food stores are full-service national or regional supermarket chains, versus one-third of food stores in West Los Angeles neighbourhoods. Burkhardt and her roommate, Kristen Martinez, a 22-year-old forklift operator, are among the 16 per cent of South L.A. residents who must travel 20 minutes or more to reach their preferred grocery store–the discount chain Food 4 Less–and must rely on a friend to drive them the 20-minute journey twice a month; by bus, it takes 45 minutes.

In other areas the hurdles to healthy shopping are even more daunting. In the notorious ghetto of Watts, 21-year-old Richard Shannon emerges from the E&M Market, a small Hispanic grocery, wearing a black dorag, his arms covered in tattoos. Shannon goes to the E&M to buy rolling papers and single cigarettes. He eats fast food every day but welcomes news of the initiative to attract more groceries to the area. “We wouldn’t have to go all the way to Inglewood–a 20-minute drive–to get something,” he says. There are supermarkets closer by, but he won’t go. “I don’t want to get shot–we live on this side,” says Shannon, referring to an invisible border between local gang territories.

South L.A.’s food desert status is made glaringly evident when one crosses the Santa Monica Freeway, its northern frontier, or heads west to affluent Culver City, where valet parking replaces drive-throughs. At Tender Greens on Culver Boulevard, a salad bar less than five kilometres away from the Jack in the Box, soothing earth tones replace primary colours, and relaxed calorie-conscious diners chat over arugula salads containing tomatoes they do eat. Activists at South L.A.’s Community Coalition coined the term “food apartheid” to describe the nutritional segregation. The use of charged political language is intentional. “Fat is a class issue,” says Marqueece Harris-Dawson, the group’s executive director and a supporter of Perry’s ban. “Areas that don’t have as many people of colour and are not poor have a much different diet.”

Reaction to the ordinance has been mixed. Public health advocates, worried about the high rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease in the area, applaud it. Larry Frank, a professor at the University of British Columbia and an authority on the relationship between health and urban design, a thriving research field, admires the initiative. “It’s your classic obese-ogenic environment–conducive to obesity in terms of urban design and food options,” he says. “They’re sitting ducks,” he says of the residents. Others, however, pillory it as paternalistic: “How do you feel about treating poor people like children?” William Saletan wrote in Slate. What the ordinance clearly signals, however, is the evolution of legislation targeted at fast and junk food. Already we’ve seen widespread banning of advertising to children and limiting access to it in schools. Arguably, the move portends fast food’s treatment as a controlled substance, not unlike alcohol or tobacco.

Roble, the L.A. city planner, says support within the community is huge. “Fast food is not want they want,” he says. “They want a replacement: secondary options for their families.” Roble was inspired by a 2005 Johns Hopkins study, “The Use of Zoning to Restrict Fast Food Outlets: A Potential Strategy to Combat Obesity,” which makes the case that “a government’s authority to zone has traditionally been greatest when it is zoning in the interest of public health.” But it also concludes zoning is only a partial solution that can’t “guarantee that people will choose a healthy diet and that businesses offering healthy foods will be successful.”

Stephen Teret, associate dean at the Center for Law and Public Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School for Public Health and one of the study’s authors, views nutritional deficiency in the inner city as unacceptable: “It’s abhorrent people have to suffer another threat to their health. They already have problems with hypertension, heart disease and violence. They shouldn’t have their lives made even worse by lack of nutritious food.”

T. Rodgers, a former high-profile gang leader who now heads up Sidewalk University, a gang intervention program, supports the ban. “It’s a good thing,” says Rodgers, sitting with a bodyguard in the atrium of his gated compound in “The Jungle,” a notorious gang neighbourhood. Fast food is ingrained in South L.A., he says. “In the black community you’re going to find three things: churches, liquor stores and motels. The fourth thing is fast food.” He adds: “We were taught to eat what was left from the master’s table.” The prevalence of fast-food outlets in South L.A. is another sign of the disintegration of what he calls “family values” in the community. “They’ve taken away the wholesomeness of what God put on this earth for us to eat in the first place.”

At a McDonald’s in Compton, just outside the area covered by the moratorium, Jay Williams, a 23-year-old machinist, sits with a group of young men. “People know this food is unhealthy,” he says. Only his friend Weez Johnson, a 22-year-old who works at a nearby Ralph’s, a major southern California supermarket chain, is eating–a cheese burger. “It’s just a bag of grease–look at all this stuff,” says Johnson, wearing silver skull-and-bones earrings. Williams, who is picky about his eating, shops at a Fresh & Easy located near his work in upscale El Segundo. But he doesn’t see his neighbours in Compton buying fresh. Johnson agrees. “My Ralph’s is always busy,” he says, but concedes patrons stock up on traditional fatty soul-food fare. He is leery of the city’s motives. “Those people don’t give a f-k about us,” he says.

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South L.A. councilwoman Jan Perry, who spearheaded the ordinance, downplays it as merely a “land-use issue.” She likens the use ‘ of zoning to that governing liquor stores. “We have a conditional-use-permit process, which allows us to impose conditions, limit hours, direct the ways items are sold,” she says. In concert with efforts to limit new fast-food outlets, the city has put together an incentive package to attract other food retail choices that includes low-interest loans, matching funds for burying utility lines, discounted electricity rates and tax credits. “It’s diversifying the options because the fast-food restaurants that are there are not going away,” says Perry.

Los Angeles has had past success with similar zoning efforts. After organizers formed the Community Coalition in 1990, the height of South-Central’s crack cocaine epidemic, they were surprised when a survey of neighbourhood concerns found liquor stores rather than crack houses were the most pressing worry for residents. The liquor stores often installed couches and supplied plastic glasses and ice with purchases, effectively creating speakeasies. Motels, meanwhile, handed out condoms with room keys and offered hourly rates, promoting prostitution. Such abuses made for a general atmosphere of lawlessness. By concentrating on the issue of zoning and arguing these businesses were poisoning South Los Angeles, the Coalition convinced the city to close dozens of liquor stores and motels.

Harris-Dawson, the group’s executive director, sees fast-food outlets as “nuisance businesses” similar to those motels and liquor stores because, he says, they “encourage loitering with 1,000 calories for less than a dollar.” The absence of other businesses like local supermarkets is a drain on South L.A.’s economy. A 2005 market study contracted by the city found the district loses more than $400 million annually in general merchandise, grocery and restaurant sales to outside areas. “South L.A. hemorrhages money, in not only food but other retail as well,” Harris-Dawson says. “Really basic day-to-day things are very difficult to buy and as a result our tax base is compromised.” Fast food is frequently the only kind of new development on commercial corridors, he says, squelching competing business before it can develop.

Matthew Turner, an economist at the University of Toronto who has studied the link between obesity and urban sprawl, calls the ordinance “paternalistic” and expresses doubt it will open up the market to healthier fare or change residents’ habits. Fast-food restaurants dominate South L.A. because that’s what the population wants, he says. “McDonald’s goes to places where people want to eat hamburgers. And my research suggests peoples’ habits are pretty fixed.” Fast food offers cheap calories, he points out. “If you’re a single mother working for minimum wage, you’re working 60 hours a week, you need to feed yourself, feed your family. You don’t have time to cook so you choose the best thing available, which might be fast food.”

Barry Glassner, author of The Gospel of Food: Everything You Think You Know About Food Is Wrong, concurs. He’s no fan of fastfood outlets, but says the suggestion “that their presence is the reason there aren’t other food options is a peculiar notion that would be hard to defend. Whatever else you want to say about fast-food chains, it’s awfully hard to identify other sorts of restaurants that provide a filling and enjoyable meal for a few bucks with a free and safe play area for the children.” UBC’s Frank points out many fastfood outlets offer healthier food choices than sit-down restaurants: “Just because it’s a sitdown restaurant doesn’t mean it’s healthy.”

Within South L.A. there’s a fatalistic skepticism that habits won’t change. “People eat a lot of junk food,” says J.J. Jaber, who has owned the rundown Fast-N Easy Market in Watts for 18 years. “None of them cook,” he says of his customers. Latinos buy more flesh produce, African-Americans less, he says, adding: “Junk food makes you fat and lazy.” Yet his store is stacked exclusively with junk food. A prominently displayed sign says it accepts EBT, an electronic food-stamp system. Jaber says he sold vegetables once but he stopped, selling his vegetable refrigerator seven years ago, due to lack of demand.

Industry insiders view the ordinance as part of a larger movement to stigmatize fast food. “Someone needs to be blamed for this obesity epidemic and we’ve managed to come front and centre,” says Daniel Conway, a spokesman for the California Restaurant Association. The industry would like to “remove the target from our backs so we can sit down and engage in some kind of meaningful partnership to deal with this,” he says. Despite reports the industry would respond to the South L.A. ordinance by mounting a legal challenge, Conway says it is taking a wait-and-see approach. But he expects the ordinance to inspire similar measures: “I wouldn’t be surprised to see more proposals along these lines.” Roble, the L.A. city planner, says he has already fielded inquiries from other cities, including Miami and Fresno.

The U of T’s Turner scoffs at the notion that banning McDonald’s will result in the arrival of Whole Foods. “If there was an army of people in South L.A. desperate to march into a supermarket, that would make it very profitable to run a supermarket–and you wouldn’t need legislation,” he says. Whether the incentives package will entice business is questionable. Conway, the industry spokesman, notes it was introduced a year ago, to little effect. (Perry counters she’s had two approaches so far, one from Maria’s Italian Kitchen, a local enterprise, another from a sushi restaurant.)

Resident Richard Shannon expresses doubt retailers will flock to the area: “This is basically the ghetto, they don’t want to deal with that.” In fact, supermarkets have been leaving. Ralph’s shuttered four locations in South L.A. in the last few years; two were replaced with non-food retail. Flynn says the Community Health Councils has reached out to the California Grocers Association and to the local chain Trader Joe’s, which specializes in organic foods, to no avail. She suspects Trader Joe’s does not open in South L.A. because “those of us who have transportation will go to their other locations in other communities.” Harris-Dawson notes Whole Foods has manufacturing and distributing plants in South L.A. but won’t set up shop, even in nearby View Park, a wealthy black neighbourhood. “It’s wealthier than a lot of the areas that Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s locates in,” he says. A Whole Foods spokesperson says store-site decisions are “based on a combination of factors that include the availability and cost of real estate, population density, education, income, and interest in natural and organic foods.”

One exception to the trend is Fresh & Easy, owned by the British grocery retailer Tesco. The smaller-format grocery chain is building a presence in the southwest U.S. targeting food deserts. It has opened 71 stores, 11 of them in Los Angeles. In July, ground was broken for a store in South L.A. “We go where there’s a business opportunity,” says Fresh & Easy spokesman Brendan Wonnacott. “It just is logical to go into a neighbourhood that desperately wants what you provide.”

Rodgers, the former gang leader, says community support is required. “A nice wholesome store is not going to come and open here for fear of being robbed,” he says. “And without an understanding of the culture and relationships of the community, it will get robbed.” Alternatives to fast food–whether grocery stores or better sit-down restaurants–must be generated by the people of South L.A. themselves, he argues. “It’s a re-education but on the street level, through the grapevine,” he says. “And we’ve got the greatest grapevine in the world.”

Back at Jack in the Box, Burkhardt and Martinez are finishing breakfast and musing on the implications of the moratorium. Burkhardt says she’d like to see a Whole Foods in the area. “It’s hard to get organics out here,” she says, though she notes McDonald’s does now offer apple slices. Her fastfood habit is evident when she mentions she won’t eat chicken with bones, calling it “weird.” Martinez doesn’t mind city council dictating what kind of restaurants can open. “That don’t matter to me as long as you get more groceries out here,” she says. “So you can buy a hamburger, throw some bacon on there. A tomato.”