Sunday, March 22, 2015

Fast Food Banned out of Sight but not out of Minds in Los Angeles

Image via We Heart It

        The 2008 ordinance in South Los Angeles, to ban free standing fast food restaurants, was a heartfelt attempt to weaken unhealthy behavior by reducing the tempting physical presence of fast food restaurants. The authors of this zoning regulation hoped that depriving fast food restaurants of visibility would translate into them losing power over individuals. Do you know who else was feeling heartfelt...the residents for fast food. According Roland Sturm's study, fast food consumption actually increased from 2007 to 2012. LA Times subtly reveals the crux of the issue by profiling Otis Wright, a minister at the West Los Angeles Church of God in Christ and probably a cornerstone figure in the community. He commented, while snacking on chicken nuggets at a Burger King in Baldwin Hills, that "they are wholesome and fill a spot." According to Wright, fast food restaurants such as the Burger King he frequents, can fulfill the need to have a clean environment for leisurely conversation. This is especially important in neglected or under-resourced communities. This Burger King is obviously lodged into Wright's social experience and lifestyle. 

      Although it may just be a fast food restaurant to outsiders, for the residents these restaurants serve an unique cultural purpose and thus fast food establishments will almost effortlessly maintain their soft power as cultural institutions. In addition, the fast food ordinance only targeted new restaurants, even though it is the old restaurants that are fully integrated into the residents’ daily lives and embedded in their deeper personal histories. The Great Recession also was in full bloom between 2007 and 2012; I imagine that it would be difficult to redirect comfortable behavior and change social norms during such a crucial time. Familiarity is soothing in difficult times.

        But why did the city hone in on reducing the external visibility of the fast food restaurants when it is clear that it is the more powerful invisible forces sustaining fast food as the fuel of South Los Angeles? Well the city's agency is compromised by their limited their funds, especially in comparison to the fast food industry. According to Roland Sturm’s study, low income communities are situated within South Los Angeles. Therefore the city probably lacked the funds to implement more comprehensive plans and programs that could strategically complement the ordinance. Officials just hoped that this ordinance would carve out ample space for market solutions. However even this plan is proving futile. The fast food industry has probably dominated the space for such a long time that now the city’s structure maintains its success. Councilman Bernard C. Parks, who co-wrote the zoning restriction, explained to LA Times that, 'the ordinance was meant to be a part of a larger strategy that includes bringing grocery stores and farmers markets to replace fast-food restaurants, but that part has been more difficult to accomplish." It definitely would be difficult for less powerful market forces, like farmer markets, to boldly take on the cultural and structural monopoly held by the fast food industry. So a main component of this plan, to cement the physical transformation of South LA's environment, has been hampered by invisible economic and social forces. 

      The residents, which are predominately made up of the working poor and working class, could probably identify with this lack of agency which contributes to the city's collective compromised agency. For example, the working poor and working class generally have less agency over their schedules and therefore it's understandable how fast food restaurants could be used as an accessible antidote to this issue. Wright explained how, "It’s convenient way to eat when you are moving around." Especially under the context of the Great Recession, job insecurity added pressure on this particular lack of agency.

     The study and news articles repeatedly commented on how restricted and limited the ordinance was, suggesting that the ordinance was almost guaranteed to fail. Even Barry Popkin, a professor of global nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, declared to NPR, "That little ban was just too trivial.” Despite how weak this ordinance appeared, according to LA Times, this law, "marked the first time a big city had succeeded in taking on fast food restaurants in an attempt to improve its residents' health." If such a weak ordinance is considered such a huge deal, then cultural, economic and political forces and the clout of the fast food industry had already preemptively reduced the efficacy of the zoning regulation. If the fast food industry has this much concentrated power to suppress cities, imagine how much power they have over individual lives. Fast food's strong hold over the city resembles their stronghold over hearts, minds and lifestyles. It's easy to ignore how the industry has literally changed the culture and make up of America. If South Los Angeles could of had a stronger ordinance, then all new fast food restaurants could have been blocked, not just the free standing restaurants which according to NPR "were rare to start with." If the older fast food restaurants, could have been eliminated this would had given the ordinance its intended effect by removing the institutions who are facilitating the deep entrenched habits and social norms. But obviously the chances of that policy being enacted is impossible, such an expansive policy would be  considered inconceivable. 

        The city’s lack of agency and power gives clues to why the citizens appear to have such a lack of agency to eat healthier. It’s just that the residents' lack of agency against the fast food industry is affecting them in a different manner from the city. The city is consolidating their limited resources but are severely restrained by a myriad of invisible forces. The residents are also restrained by a myriad of invisible forces. The city doesn’t have the power the make grander gestures but instead they are forced to wait for slow change in the midst of a public health crisis and "just give it more time," as Gwendolyn Flynn, policy director for nutrition services at Community Health Council advised. Similarly, the residents like Otis Wright understand, even if only from a shallow standpoint, that fast food "may not be the most nutritional" but their lack of agency firmly plants the fast food in their hearts, minds and thus behavior.
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Anonymous said...

OK. The reality is that places like Taco Bell and Burger King feed a lot of poor people. I have noticed no interest in banning branches of the Cheesecake Factory, even though their menu makes McDonald's look like a produce market.

I also note that pop, or soda, the drink of the poor faces major taxation and bans, while wine, and hard liquor, the drinks of the more affluent face no such bans. In fact, many juices are not really sources of much other than sugar - but no one seems interested in taxing apple and grape juices.

It is worth noting that the supposed public health crisis of childhood obesity is proclaimed at a time when children's weights are coming down to levels not seen since the 1960s.

In other words, just another effort to regulate the poor.

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