Thursday, July 31, 2008

Fast Food Moratorium

I’m no great fan of fast food. My personal tastes lie elsewhere. I’ve done the obligatory reading of Fast Food Nation. I think it’s repulsive that so many food ads target kids. I also know the hell that McDonald’s Chicken McNugget and subsequent “further processed” items have wrought for poultry processing workers—think I’m kidding? Read Steve Striffler’s Chicken: The Dangerous Transformation of America’s Favorite Food.

But something about this is not quite reassuring:
City officials are putting South Los Angeles on a diet. The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to place a moratorium on new fast food restaurants in an impoverished swath of the city with a proliferation of such eateries and above-average rates of obesity.
Maybe it’s the reporters “cute” use of the word diet, when we all know how well those don’t work.

My real complaint is that banning fast food restaurants seems just to skim the surface of this issue. How will the city bring more healthful alternatives to poor communities? More importantly, how will people in South L.A. afford it? Closing fast food restaurants does nothing to address the underlying issue of poverty. Residents will still have limited resources for buying food, as one man attests:
South Los Angeles resident Curtis English acknowledged that fast food is loaded with calories and cholesterol. But since he's unemployed and does not have a car, it serves as a cheap, convenient staple for him.

On Monday, he ate breakfast and lunch -- a sausage burrito and double cheeseburger, respectively -- at a McDonald's a few blocks from home for just $2.39.
Emphasis mine. With less money to spend on food, people typically by cheaper foods. Inexpensive foods are packed with fat and sugar, the cheapest additives, Striffler argues, to give them taste.

Relatedly, how will declaring a moratorium on fast food restaurants help people who can’t afford to eat out anywhere? Within this group, if we focus on the subset who receive food stamps—and I say subset because many, many people who qualify for food stamps don't receive any--and get most of their foods from local stores, a moratorium will not bring more grocery stores with better fresh food offerings to the area. Lack of access to such stores is a problem in South L.A.:
South Los Angeles lacks grocery stores, fresh produce markets and full-service restaurants with wait staff and food prepared to order.
South Los Angeles only has four major grocery stores, as compared to 13 in West Los Angeles
The emphasis on fast food obscures at least one other detail, as well. Fast food restaurants, defined “as those that do not offer table service and provide a limited menu of pre-prepared or quickly heated food in disposable wrapping,” aren’t exactly unique in their less-than-healthful alternatives. The menus at so-called “casual dining” and upscale restaurants can be daunting.

In our e-mail discussion of the article, Liss noted that the moratorium brings up employment issues. Fast food restaurants offer entry-level jobs to unskilled workers. I do not claim they are pleasant or particularly fulfilling jobs, but that they are often needed. My co-blogger, mrs. o, helped her mother care for a family of five by working at McDonald’s. And for a few people, it offers some upward mobility through management jobs.

Finally, this sentence aggravated me:
The moratorium, which can be extended up to a year, only affects standalone restaurants, not eateries located in malls or strip shopping centers.
I’m assuming that it’s not poor people who are spending lots of money shopping; I wonder why the city exempts malls. It gives me a whole, “Let’s regulate the poor,” feeling.

Or, more specifically, “Let’s regulate the brown and black poor.” Speaking in terms of substances that are legal, we have constructed the process of taking things into our body as highly personal, a matter of free choice. The limitations that the government places on our alcohol consumption or where we smoke, for example, are primarily to protect the safety and well-being of other people. Americans, as the myth goes, are individualists who would not take much more governmental interference with such intimate choices.

Yet, the symbol of that rugged American individual who gets to choose and to benefit from free will has, by default, been white and male. I think it is no coincidence that officials in South L.A., which is overwhelmingly Latin@ and black, decided to enact this moratorium. I think one very valid question is would it be suggested or implemented in poor area composed of primarily white residents? In a country that has typically held the choices and bodies of white men in highest regard? A healthy dose of skepticism is absolutely required when the government claims to act in the best interest of the health and welfare of people of color.

In the same vein, we need to examine other motivations behind the ban. As South L.A. is an impoverished area, many of the residents are probably eligible for Medicaid and Medicare programs. According to one 2005 article, these two programs paid for half of all health-care costs attributed to obesity (quite the blanket category and one of which I am particularly wary given my own experiences with doctors who fault patients' weight for a wide range of problems).* Is this moratorium, then, about a nanny state protecting people from themselves, as the link Petulant posted earlier suggests, or is it like other governmental limitations protecting the (economic) well-being of others?

Either way it is framed is problematic. Either people who are black and brown, poor and fat, cannot be entrusted to care for themselves--a framing that ignores the very real lack of choice mentioned earlier and other obstacles to quality health and health care. Or, their fat, black and brown bodies represent a threat to taxpayers' wallets--and "taxpayers," when we talk about funding of social programs like Medicaid and Medicare, are constructed as white and non-poor.
*Eric A. Finkelstein, Christopher J. Ruhm, Katherine M. Kosa, “Economic Causes and Consequences of Obesity,” Annual Review of Public Health, 26, (April 2005): 239-257. Can't find this article for free online, but Dr. Michelle Mello mentions the statistic here.


Kismet Nuñez said...

First off, your new site is BEAUTIFUL! This is my first visit since I subscribe :)

Back to your post--completely on point. The first thing I thought when I heard the news was, there go black owned businesses, the few that there are. And I am not familiar with the area, but if it is anything like my neighborhood, we aren't just talking black owned but Latin@ owned and Asian owned as well. And what will replace it?

This to me is the logic of gentrification speaking which on its surface is benevelont, beneath that surface is patronizing and way underneath at the root is greed.

I wonder whether or not the community was consulted, involved, in such a move?

elle said...

Thank you. Jennifer brought up the gentrification point at VivirLatino.

And what will replace it?

That is a profound question.

Lisa said...

Fantastic post. I wrote about this myself last week, but nowhere near as eloquently as you.

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