French Fries as Contraband

September 4th, 2008 by Kathy McManus

Should the government have the right to ban fast food?

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

Should government be responsible for deciding what kinds of food you can—and cannot—eat?

The city of Los Angeles recently sank its teeth into the issue by banning any new fast food restaurants from opening in a 32-square-mile area of low-income South Central LA for at least one year.

South Central has the city’s highest concentration of fast food outlets—and the highest rates of diabetes and obesity. 30% of adults in the area are overweight. Saturated by food that experts link to health problems, and with few supermarkets or green grocers offering healthier food and fresh produce, the area has been labeled a ‘food desert.”

The goal of the moratorium is to stop the fast food clock while the city tries to attract grocery stores, sit-down restaurants and other fresh food sources to set up shop in the neighborhood.

But do the new regulations serve up food for thought, or food police? The intent is not to crush food choices, says the city councilwoman who sponsored the initiative, but to encourage variety and more nutritious options. Supporters of the ban say making healthy decisions about food is difficult when low income residents must choose between the nearest grocery store five miles away or a cheap cheeseburger from around the corner.

Critics of the measure say legislating eating habits won’t work. “Limiting people’s food options is not really the way to go,” says a prominent community leader. “Nor is the role of government to tell people what they should or should not be eating. French fries aren’t contraband.” Opponents also scoff at the suggestion that residents are “intellectually incapable” of deciding what to eat.

The fast food industry says the moratorium is misguided. “What’s next?” asked a spokesperson. “Security guards at the door saying ‘You’re overweight, you can’t have a cheeseburge

The food-and-government debate is being played out far beyond South Central LA as states and cities across the country seek to limit other food choices by banning trans fats in restaurants and bakeries and mandating that calorie counts and nutritional information be publically posted.

“But let’s face it,” said a West Virginia newspaper editorial, “until egg-white omelets are cheaper and tastier than doughnuts, it will remain a gargantuan challenge.”

Tell us what you think: Are food choices a personal responsibility or a matter of public health? Should government ever have the right to dictate what you should or shouldn’t eat?