Los Angeles Fights the Obesity Epidemic

September 1st, 2011 by The Responsibility Project

Was banning fast food restaurants a step too far?

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Using past trends to predict how our society might look in the future, a study released last week reported that half of the adults in the United States could be obese by the year 2030. In order to stem the tide, should the government be responsible for deciding what kinds of food you can – and cannot – eat? In some cities, such measures are already taking place.

Los Angeles sank its teeth into the issue back in 2008 by banning any new fast food restaurants from opening in a 32-square-mile area of low-income South Central Los Angeles for at least one year. At the time of the ban, 30 percent of adults in the area were overweight. Saturated by food that experts linked to health problems, and with few supermarkets or green grocers offering healthier food and fresh produce, the area had been labeled a ‘food desert.”

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

But did the new regulations serve up food for thought, or food police? The intent was not to crush food choices, said the city councilwoman who sponsored the initiative, but to encourage variety and more nutritious options. Supporters of the ban said 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.

According to The New York Times, critics of the measure felt that legislating eating habits wouldn’t work. “Limiting people’s food options is not really the way to go,” said one 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 scoffed at the suggestion that residents are “intellectually incapable” of deciding what to eat.

The California Restaurant Association believed the moratorium was misguided: “What’s next?” asked a spokesperson. “Security guards at the door saying, ‘You’re overweight, you can’t have a cheeseburger?’”

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

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

(A portion of this story was previously published as “French Fries as Contraband” on The Responsibility Project on 9/4/08)