Cementing its reputation as a haven of well-intentioned but noxious intolerance, San Francisco's board of supervisors recently approved an ordinance banning toys in children's meals that exceed 600 calories. The measure didn't explicitly refer to McDonald's or Happy Meals. It didn't have to.
Apparently, the problem isn't the prevalence of fast food outlets. It isn't their low cost or accessibility. It's not the lack of affordable, appealing alternatives in some neighborhoods. It's not a lax regulatory climate that allows products barely recognizable as food to be labeled as such. And it's definitely not a federally-approved food pyramid so thoroughly compromised by special interests it's nearly useless. It's the toys.
Now, the L.A. City Council, led by Councilwoman Jan Perry (District 9) is considering a ban on new fast-food restaurants in some minority neighborhoods. History shows that government policy can have a huge impact on dietary habits. (Witness the prevalence of high fructose corn syrup in processed foods thanks to subsidies for corn growers.) We won't, however, achieve meaningful change in dietary habits with this kind of gymcrack land-planning.
Banning more fast food restaurants from opening in neighborhoods like south and southeast Los Angeles, where they make up fully 45% of the eating establishments (according to the L.A. Times), will not inspire people to eat better. It probably won't even make people eat less fast food. Psych 101: Banning something people desire usually increases its appeal.
The proposed ban is even more ridiculous given that chains like Denny's, whose menus are loaded with gut-busting items, would be exempt from it. (Anyone for an 895-calorie Fried Cheese Melt, a grilled cheese sandwich with four mozzarella sticks inside it?) The L.A. City council would simply be favoring one class of high-calorie, high-fat fare over another.
The best way to achieve dietary improvement is NOT to limit the choices that currently exist, but to give people better choices.
That means improving access to quality, affordable food: vegetables, fruits and staples like beans, rice, pasta, bread, etc. That means more — and better — supermarkets in minority communities, which are often vastly underserved by grocery chains. Maybe that means subsidies or breaks for trucks and corner markets that offer fresh produce. Maybe that even means speeding up the city's labyrinthine regulatory process for non-fast food restaurants.
On thing it definitely means: the self-appointed food police ought to stand down in their fast food skirmish and start fighting the bigger battle of creating a broad-based, sustainable food policy that provides people with access to healthier food.