Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
There are many forces that promote healthier eating, but a zoning regulation against fast-food restaurants has not turned out to be one.
Heralded as a landmark success in the "war on obesity," the ban on new fast-food restaurants in South Los Angeles was meant to reshape culinary offerings in the obesity-plagued region.
“People do not understand what happens in a disenfranchised community,” Jan Perry, the councilwoman behind the ban, told The New York Times in 2008, when it went into effect. “The fact remains, there are not a lot of food choices in South L.A.”
But things have barely changed in the seven years since, according to a new report from the Rand Corporation. In fact, the proportion of fast-food restaurants to other kinds of food establishments hasn't even decreased. And South L.A.'s obesity rates have only gone up.
"This policy has had no detectable effect," says Roland Sturm, the report's lead author.
Using the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health's database of food-retail permits, Sturm and co-author Aiko Hattori found that the proportion of fast-food restaurants to other kinds of food establishments had not diminished since the regulation was passed. The share of new fast-food restaurants in South L.A. permitted since 2008 was still similar compared to other parts of the city and county.
Plus, the kind of new "restaurant" most likely to open in South L.A. was a "small food store"—a convenience store, in other words, where inexpensive yet unhealthy foods proliferate. Yet these were unaffected by the regulation, which only restricted opening or expanding stand-alone fast-food restaurants.
2007-2012 data from the California Health Interview Survey show that average BMI and obesity prevalence across all of Los Angeles—and across the county. But in South L.A., they continued to be higher than in surrounding areas. In 2007, 32.02 percent of South L.A. respondents were obese, and 37.20 were in 2012.
This isn't to say that the ban on new fast-food restaurants has caused obesity rates to increase. There are plenty of other factors that contribute to food-consumption choices, from economic circumstances to time constraints to the quality of what's available nearby. The recession was also going on during the years Sturm examined.
"I'd say it's hard to isolate the effects of the ban or the non-effects of the ban," says Kathy Baylis, professor of agriculture and consumer economics at the University of Illinois who has studied the effects of fast-food advertising bans on junk food consumption (Baylis was not connected to the Rand study). "All kinds of factors are going to affect what kinds of restaurants are opening and what kinds of choices people are making."
But Sturm says that's exactly the point of his study: There are many forces that impact food-consumption behavior, and this data proves that a zoning regulation against new stand-alone fast-food restaurants is not one of those forces. Expanding the ban to include small convenience stores and non-stand-alone fast-food restaurants would have had more of a statistical impact, Sturm says, but "logistically, politically, that would not have been a realistic option. The fast-food outlets were an easy target."
Advocates of the ban say it's too soon to tell its effects. "Let's just give it a little more time," Gwendolyn Flynn, policy director for nutrition resources at Community Health Councils, told the Los Angeles Times. "These are behaviors that have developed over their life span."
She also held up data from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health which showed that from 2009 to 2013, obesity rates in South L.A. dropped slightly, from 35.4 to 32.7 percent. Habits and outlooks could be shifting towards the healthier.
Yet Sturm warns that even if change is slowly happening, it's dangerous to assume it'll keep going on its own. "This ban took the wind out of other initiatives, because it suggested that it had solved a problem," he said. "No other regulation [to encourage healthier eating] has passed since."
One thing this report makes clear: There's no silver bullet solution to widespread obesity. Just as researchers debate about the veracity and usefulness of the "food desert" theory, Sturm's findings on the South L.A. ban raises questions about the conventional wisdom on fighting obesity. It's not just about the available variety of food options, but time, finances, and quality.
"[Fast food] is a convenient way to eat when you are moving around—conducting business and for a quick dinner," Otis Wright, a minister at West Los Angeles Church of God in Christ and South L.A. resident, told the Times. "It might not be the most nutritional, but it's fast and cheap."