Thursday, November 13, 2008

Using Zoning to Combat Fast Food Restaurant Expansions

This summer, the Los Angeles City Council passed an ordinance prohibiting construction of new fast-food restaurants in a 32-square-mile area inhabited by 500,000 low-income people.

Riverbank, CA is considering changes to its zoning code that would give the city more control over where new fast food restaurants can be built and how they operate. If approved, fast-food chains and drive-throughs would be prohibited within 500 feet of schools and parks. Trans fats and Styrofoam containers would be banned. Drive-through windows would be a thing of the past, and restaurant front doors must open directly on to adjacent sidewalks (not parking lots).

These ideas sound radical, but zoning can be effectively used to reduce easy access to fast food restaurants. A recognized objective of zoning laws is protection of public health, and restrictive zoning can be a tool to reduce the prevalence of obesity.

Here are some examples, old and new:

Concord, MA bans both “fast food restaurants” and “drive-in” service. Carlsbad , CA bans all new drive-through restaurants. Newport, RI bans “drive-ins” and “carry-out” service.

Detroit bans carry-out, fast-food and drive-in restaurants within 500 feet of elementary, junior and senior high schools. Arden Hills, MN bans fast food restaurants within 400 feet of schools, churches, public recreation areas and residentially-zoned lots.

Elmsford, NY mandates at least 2,000 feet between fast food restaurants and New Millford, CT requires at lease one mile between fast food restaurants.

Why is this happening? Progressive municipalities, recognizing the failings at the state and federal level to curb abuses and irresponsible behavior by the fast food industry, are taking it upon themselves to protect their citizenry. The idea came from using zoning to restrict alcohol and cigarette sales, and other obnoxious land uses for the bigger public good.

Despite efforts by health groups and consumer advocates, the public is still not sufficiently aware that fast food restaurant meals have dangerously excessive calorie counts. Boston Market’s Meatloaf Carver has 940 calories. The BK Double Beef Whopper has a whopping 916 calories (without cheese). Nathan’s Fish & Chips weighs in at 1537 calories. And a McDonalds' Vanilla Triple Thick Shake has 1110 calories.

Menu board disclosures laws are popping up all over the country, from New York to California, with many progressive municipalities in between joining in. Trans fat bans are passing all over the country. Still there are no federal mandates because of fierce opposition and lobbying efforts of restaurant companies, restaurant associations and paid lobbyists. State and federal government has lacked the backbone to stand up to fast food abuses so local thinkers are taking the lead. This is all well and good if you live in a progressive community, but there are many parts of the country where more than half of the population is either overweight or obese. Who will help these folks?

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