Thursday, July 31, 2008

Banning fast-food in low-income communities.

On July 29th, the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to place a moratorium on new fast-food restaurants in South Los Angeles, an impoverished swath of the city with a proliferation of such eateries and above-average rates of obesity and diabetes. The action, which is yet to be signed by the mayor, is believed to be the first of its kind by a major city to protect the health of a people in a community, in this case, a low-income neighborhood.

An area with a population of 500,000 people, most of whom are African Americans and Hispanics, 28% of families here live on a budget of under 20,000 U.S. dollars a year. According to a report by the Community Health Councils, 73% of restaurants in this district are fast-food eateries, compared with 42% in West Los Angeles. These eateries alike are popular choices especially among the economically-handicapped. And not surprisingly, 30% of adults in this area are obese, compared with 19.1% for the metropolitan area and 14.1% for the affluent Westside, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health found out.

The year-long ban of new fast-food restaurants is intended to give the city time to attract restaurants that serve healthier food. Often referred to the 'Food Apartheid' by the health-conscious, the number of stores selling fresh foods is less than a quarter of that in other areas of the big Californian city. Research has shown people will change eating habits when different foods are offered but cost is a key factor in low-income communities. If you are running on a low income, or don't even have a job, and you don't have a car or other means of easy transportation, fast-food restaurants in the neighborhood serve as a cost-saving and convenient option. Although depending on what products you choose, it is not difficult to eat three meals a day for under five U.S. dollars total. Cheap, unhealthy food and lack of access to healthy food is a recipe for obesity.

However, some people in the community believe this is not enough to solve the issue. Many people are aware that fast-food is unhealthy and it is not that they don't have any supermarkets selling fresh foods. Formerly called South Central Los Angeles, this is a part of town whose name was replaced by the current one in 2003, as 'South Central' had become almost synonymous with urban decay and street crime. One pointed out that local gangs dominate some areas near the supermarkets, and people wouldn't dare to take the risk of getting robbed, beaten, or shot. The same could be said for the supermarkets, as their numbers are actually dwindling, because they don't want to risk being attacked and robbed by the gangs. To add to that, even if the crime rate is lowered, many people in the area don't know how to cook, as they have never learned how to.

The ordinance comes at a time when governments of all levels are increasingly viewing menus as a matter of public health. By the year 2030, it is estimated that 86.3% of Americans would be obese. L.A.'s ban, which can be extended by up to a year, only affects stand-alone restaurants, not eateries located in malls or shopping centers. It defines fast-food restaurants as those that do not offer table service and provide a limited menu of pre-prepared or quickly heated food in disposable wrapping. It exempts so-called 'fast-food casual' restaurants, which do not have drive-through windows or heat lamps and prepare fresh food to order, such as El Pollo Loco, Subway, and Pastagina.

Meanwhile, representatives of fast-food chains said they support the goal of better diets but believe they are being unfairly targeted, claiming they already offer healthier food items on their menus. Not surprisingly, the California Restaurant Association and its members are considering taking a legal challenge to the action.

A former gangster in the area has said the ordinance would bring minimal change, and for fundamental change, it has to be done by the people in the community... and this is an idea that lies at the roots of primary health care (PHC). :-)

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