The Situationist

Innovative Policy: Zoning for Health

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 29, 2007

McDonalds

We often hear about new and allegedly innovative approaches to implementing public policy. The key word, of course, is “innovative.” By definition, it means the process of making improvements by introducing something new or — and particularly relevant to the following discussion — translating new ideas into tangible societal impact.

This year we’ve seen plenty of “innovative” approaches when it comes to public health. Some have attracted headlines. “Philadelphia follows New York in taking on trans-fat“; “Montgomery county declares war on partially hydrogenated oils in restaurants, supermarket bakeries, and delis.”

The city of Los Angeles will soon contemplate its own new and likely controversial proposal for innovative public health policy: “health zoning plans” for fast-food. As Tami Abdollah of the Los Angeles Times details, LA’s city council will be asked this fall to consider an up to two-year moratorium on new fast-food restaurants in South L.A., “a part of the city where fast food is at least as much a practicality as a preference.”

NPR’s All Things Considered outlines additional details on the proposed two-year moratorium. “In South Los Angeles, where 30 percent of adults are obese, activists and lawmakers are pointing to one possible cause: few dining-out choices except for fast food restaurants.” According to NPR, this particular low-income area, much like other low-income urban areas across the country, offers few healthy food alternatives, even fewer grocery stores, and fast food chains may be found just a stone’s throw away from each other.

Tami Abdollah describes the situation of many South L.A. residents this way.

* * *

Catalina Ayala, 23, who grew up in South Los Angeles, lives three blocks from a McDonald’s and a slew of other fast-food restaurants, and eats fast food about four times a week.

“By the time I go home, it’s already too late to cook food,” said Ayala, who works at LAX.

On a recent afternoon, Ayala and her husband were at a McDonald’s. Their 3-year-old son played in the indoor playground, which for some families serves as their children’s park.

But her husband, a 23-year-old construction worker in South L.A., said he avoids fast food.

“It’s not for me,” he said. “Later on sometimes, your son is too fat, he eats too much.”

That was one reason Terrah Cephas, 32, left South L.A. for the Valley about two years ago.

“It’s fast food on every corner, but it’s not enough wholesome restaurants,” she said. “You literally have to be willing to drive to Long Beach or Santa Monica, or Inglewood.”

Fast Food

That’s if you have a car.

Many South L.A. residents are “almost a captive audience for these restaurants, unfortunately,” Flynn said.

In South Los Angeles, 28% of people live in poverty, compared with 16.2% of the county, according to county figures.

South L.A. has lots of fast-food restaurants because these restaurants do well in areas where people might not want to spend $15 on lunch, said Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of Foodservice Strategies at WD Partners, a restaurant consulting firm that works with Red Lobster, Jamba Juice and Fatburger, among others.

But there also may be missed opportunities: According to a 2005 market study contracted by the city, South L.A. loses more than $400 million annually in general merchandise, grocery and restaurant sales to outside areas.

“The community has suffered for decades by an assumption that attracting business of any type is good, and it’s not true,” Perry said.

* * *

In a situation where fast food is available twenty-four hours (and in abundance), it should not be surprising that an overweight population arises. Yet as discussed in Broken Scales: Obesity and Justice in America, a law review article by Situationist contributors Adam Benforado, Jon Hanson, and David Yosifon, “obesity is only a symptom of the problem.” The “real problem” is the difficulty in recognizing and understanding “[roles] of unseen features in our environment and within us and too readily [attributing] responsibility and causation to the more obvious ‘personal choices’ of the obese.” In essence, assigning obesity to personal choices alone and not discerning the relevant situational forces results in “misdiagnosing” the true problem. With obesity at an all-time high throughout the United States, 47 states are above 20% and fifteen years ago no state was above 15%, pressure to implement “innovative” plans (that work) will substantially increase.

Los Angeles’ proposal enables a new term in policy, health zoning, which raises an important question: do policymakers have a responsibility to address public health problems generally attributed primarily to personal choice? More broadly, if people are moved largely by situation, and if situation is influenced by laws and policies, then should policymakers consider the situational consequences of their policies — intended and unintended.

For a collection of other posts on the situation of obesity, including Phil Zimbardo’s most recent post, click here. For other posts on the regulation of food, click here.

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