July 22, 2008 — Last week, New York City started to enforce legislation that requires fast food restaurant chains to reveal the calories contained in their menu items.
On the heels of recent studies that blame portion control and lack of understanding about caloric intake for the collectively ballooning weight of America, this seems a smart and reasonable measure to take. If consumers knew a double cheeseburger contained nearly 500 calories and more than 25 grams of fat, they might eat fewer of them.
But now, a district in Los Angeles is joining other local governments seeking to ban new fast food restaurants in particularly restaurant-dense neighborhoods.
Now, it might make sense to limit the percentage of a given type of storefront in residential areas. But in the name of fair play, that kind of ordinance should apply to all types of stores – liquor stores, coffee shops, convenience stores, and others – not just fast food restaurants. Kind of like anti-trust protection for your neighborhood to ensure a variety of options and services.
The goal of lowering reliance on fast food is important – especially in poorer neighborhoods which tend to have less education about nutrition, a higher density of fast food, and a lower incidence of exercise than other neighborhoods, according to recent studies. And while the concept of preventing new fast-food chains from dominating any landscape might seem helpful, there are other symptoms of this problem that need to be addressed, too.
First there’s consumer motivation to deal with: If people want fast food, (like they want cigarettes, alcohol and other products that contribute to an unhealthy lifestyle) there are plenty of ways to get it – even if you have to get in your car and drive a few blocks.
Then there’s the practical reality: For many, the perceived value, convenience and taste of a fast-food value meal simply makes more sense than trying to shop for, and prepare, a fresh meal for 4 from the grocery store where provisions are progressively expensive.
Finally, there’s the educational element: If people don’t understand how food affects their body, they’re not equipped to make informed decisions about how they choose to feed their families.
So where are the healthy alternatives? Where are the healthy recipe ideas in the reasonably priced stores? Where is the education about nutrition? The community gardens and cooking classes? Where are the incentivized health plans that reward healthful checkups with lower health care costs, or government subsidized “health bucks” redeemable at various stores?
Yes, it is a crime that people are increasingly growing fatter and less healthy in this country. And yes the medical bills incurred from a less healthy population will affect all of us with missed work days, higher premiums, lowered productivity and increased emergency care needs. But you need to cure this crisis at its core – through better education and making healthier options more viable and attractive.
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