How Your City Can Push Back Against Fast Food

Michele Simon, JD, MPH
St. Pauls schoolchild- example of a school fighting fast-food influence

Last week, the National League of Cities, which represents over 19,000 cities, villages and towns, hosted its annual meeting in Boston, with one of its three aims to “strengthen neighborhoods and families.” What better way to accomplish that goal than to challenge fast food’s influence in their communities? While a couple of conference sessions featured First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! program, missing from the agenda was the role fast food plays in communities. That’s why Corporate Accountability International released a report and action guide earlier this year called “Slowing down fast food: A policy guide for healthier kids and families” – to fill this void.

The guide aims to help cities fight back against the harm over-concentration of fast food outlets can bring to communities. Children are especially vulnerable to targeted marketing by fast-food corporations. Just ask any tired working parents who say no to kids’ pleas for junk food only to find their children bombarded by fast food ads in school.

While efforts to rein in junk food marketing to children have been unsuccessful at the federal level so far, cities can still engage in several local strategies to protect both children and adults from the adverse health impacts of fast food.

The guide’s section on zoning restrictions provides several examples of local policies enacted successfully across the country. For example, restrictions on chain restaurants (either outright bans or limits on the number permissible) exist in several California cities, as well as cities in Massachusetts and Maine. An ordinance dating back to 1978 in Detroit prohibits fast food outlets within 500 feet of schools, thus reducing children’s exposure to harmful marketing messages.

In my own neighborhood in Oakland, California in 2004, I was part of a successful effort to keep McDonald’s from moving in directly across the street from my beloved Grand Lake Farmers Market. It just took a few dedicated leaders organizing to stop the fast food giant, along with supportive policymakers. I spoke to an overflowing crowd at the local church and was never more proud of my community. Eight years later, a local independent business thrives at that location, proving that mom-and-pop alternatives to mega-chains can succeed.

In another inspiring success story, in 2008, the city of Los Angeles placed a one-year moratorium on new fast food outlets in south and east L.A, two particularly low-income areas with a high density of fast food. A series of steps helped get the job done, including surveys and other data gathering, finding a champion in the city council, speaking out at council meetings, and of course, a ton of organizing and coalition-building. This was the first time a government placed a moratorium on fast food for health reasons. Last year, the city council extended the moratorium indefinitely. This should serve as a model for other cities.

Cities can help promote another promising local strategy: getting fast food out of area hospitals, an idea whose time has come. Just last month, Truman Medical Center in Kansas City, Missouri ended its contract with McDonald’s. In doing so, Truman became the fourth hospital to stop doing business with the fast-food giant in recent years. Does your city have one of the 21 hospitals that Corporate Accountability International has petitioned (along with a coalition of health professionals) to remove McDonald’s? If so, please contact that hospital administration and encourage them to follow the lead of Truman and others.

There is no better time to fight back against the infiltration of fast food in our communities. The good food movement is bursting with efforts to bring more farmers markets and other alternative food models to low-income areas. While this approach is worthy and needed, we also must fight back against the fast food outlets that undermine such efforts. Our cities’ health depends on it.

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