September 3, 2008 / 2:54 PM / 10 years ago

LA's fast-food ban draws skepticism

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A ban on new fast-food restaurants in poor Los Angeles neighborhoods has made headlines around the world, but residents say they don’t plan to give up their cheeseburgers, fried chicken and tacos anytime soon.

Customers hold fast food purchased at nearby restaurants in South Los Angeles August 28, 2008. REUTERS/Phil McCarten

The moratorium, which was passed in July, was intended to fight obesity in low-income communities of America’s second-largest city where healthy food is hard to find.

The move is trend-setting California’s latest salvo in an expanding war on the fast-food industry, which is bracing for copycat maneuvers around the United States that could threaten growth.

But residents are skeptical that such laws will have much impact in Los Angeles’ low-income and minority neighborhoods, which are already blanketed with cheap and easy-to-find meals at chains such as McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell and Domino’s Pizza.

“It’s stupid. It’s our body, we choose what we put in it,” Tonya Owens, a 45-year-old nurse assistant told Reuters.

Edwin Tsai, interviewed at a cluster of fast-food chains in the affected district, which includes the neighborhoods of South Los Angeles, West Adams, Baldwin Hills and Leimert Park, said there were reasons people eat at places like McDonald’s.

“It’s fast and easy. I think people will still come here no matter what,” Tsai, 23, said.

Eye-popping calorie counts and the often unhealthy ingredients used in fast food have made the industry a favorite whipping boy for anti-obesity advocates and lawmakers.

Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry poses in front of signs for fast food establishments in South Los Angeles August 28, 2008. REUTERS/Phil McCarten

“This isn’t the calm before the storm, this is still the storm,” said California Restaurant Association spokesman Daniel Conway, whose group represents most major restaurant chains.

“A TARGET ON OUR BACKS”

“A target has been put on our backs. There seems to be some people out there who think that if only we can regulate the restaurant industry, we can cure obesity,” said Conway, who added that his clients were bracing for a flood of similar legislation after the election season.

Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry, sponsor of the moratorium, said she didn’t want to eliminate fast-food chains in her 32-square-mile (82-sq-km) district, which is home to more than half a million people and 400 fast-food restaurants.

Instead, she said, the law was intended to give officials time to attract healthy alternatives and grocery stores, which are few and far between in poorer, urban neighborhoods.

Experts say supermarket chains are reluctant to open stores in such neighborhoods out of security and theft concerns — a worry that Perry calls outdated and misplaced.

Her move followed a report showing that about 30 percent of children living in the district, which has the city’s highest concentration of fast-food restaurants, are obese compared with some 21 percent in the rest of Los Angeles.

“It’s what the community has said it wants over and over again,” Perry said in an interview.

Bob Goldin, executive vice president at restaurant consulting firm Technomic, said restrictions like trans fat bans have helped improve public health. But he is less optimistic about the ban on new fast-food restaurants: “I think they may have gone a little far on this one.”

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Still, he expects little push back from consumers: “I strongly suspect you are not going to see a whole lot of people calling their council members to protest.”

California this year became the first state to ban artery-clogging trans fats in restaurants and in 2003 it banned the sale of soft drinks in middle and elementary schools.

State lawmakers have also backed a bill that would make California the first state to require chain restaurants with 20 or more outlets to list calorie counts on menus.

“I don’t think there’s a downside from the consumer point of view. We’re going to see a lot more of this,” said Goldin.

San Jose, some 350 miles to the north, already has tried to follow suit — though its proposed ordinance died when its co-sponsor went into premature labor with her first child.

A spokesman for councilwoman Nora Campos, the lead proponent of the proposed San Jose legislation, said she would try again when she returns from maternity leave.

Though the Los Angeles moratorium will likely be copied by local governments, experts say the causes of obesity are complex and fast-food restaurants won’t go away.

“I’m no fan of fast food or fast-food corporations but, having said that, its simplistic in the extreme to consider them the cause of all these ills that have been blamed on them,” said Barry Glassner, author of “The Gospel of Food” and sociology professor at the University of Southern California.

“There is a very real problem with a lack of food options in low-income neighborhoods and it’s one legislators have an obligation to solve,” he said. “But if you want more food options, do things to facilitate more options.”

Additional reporting by Jennifer Martinez, editing by Dave Zimmerman

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