Big Brother and the Restaurant Biz in South Los Angeles

Now please, don’t get me wrong. I am all for healthy eating. I am all for exercise, keeping the weight down (I like to see my feet when I look down), making sure that my coronary arteries aren’t all clogged and my blood pressure is where it needs to be. I am all for that and that is how I try to live. I am an adult and that makes me responsible for the waxing and waning of my waistline, a lesson I learned when I realized that my “college 10” (the weight gain people experience their first year in college) was actually a “college 40.” It took a long time for me to take responsibility and lose that weight, but I did it. It was my weight and it was my responsibility to either keep it—and all the attendant health risks that went with it—or lose it. 

It is all about personal responsibility. In fact, when you think about it, everything that happens in our lives has an element of personal responsibility. This is why I was so dismayed to read about the recent Los Angeles City Council action against the fast food industry in South Los Angeles. For the health of the people who live there, the LA City Council placed a moratorium on the construction of new fast food restaurants in the area and made it harder for those that are currently there to expand or remodel. At the same time, they want to put an economic development plan into place to encourage better restaurants to open up shop in South LA. The evidence, developed by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, that Council Member Jan Perry, the measure’s sponsor, cited for the move is compelling:

  • 30% of South Los Angeles residents are obese.
  • 19.1% of Metropolitan Los Angeles residents are obese.
  • 14.1% of residents on the affluent Westside of Los Angeles are obese. 

In other words, the poor residents of South LA have a higher (10.1%) obesity rate than the overall population of the LA metropolitan area and a 15.9% higher obesity rate than those in the moneyed Westside area. With figures like that, it’s only natural that the folks in the LA City Council would want to help. Right? Add in the fact that most of these people in South LA don’t have transportation to go to better restaurants and they don’t generally have the money to spend on a nice, sit down dinner at, say, T.G.I. Friday’s. 

Of course, that is the problem, isn’t it? Places like South Los Angeles get the restaurants they do because the people of the area can afford them. You can spend $5 and change at McDonald’s for a burger, fries and drink and $10 or more at a place like Friday’s for the same thing. If you had a radically constricted income, which would you choose. For most people it comes down to cost, and in these difficult economic times, the good stuff that the LA City Council wants to offer the people of South LA is becoming more and more expensive. 

The parent company of Bennigan’s and Steak and Ale, for example, both of which would be acceptable under the plan, has gone out of business. The franchise restaurants are still in operation but the corporate places are gone. One reason cited was that less people are eating out these days due to high gas prices. Another was that the food, all of which is prepared fresh, is becoming increasingly expensive. The surviving restaurants are faced with imposing price increases on their menu items or watching their profits dwindle. Since wages don’t rise with inflation; and the usual answer to this dilemma is a price hike, I wonder how these restaurants will survive if they do open up in an economically troubled area like South LA. 

The fact is that they won’t survive, which is the reason they are not there already. The existing fast food places will continue to do business and the more upscale establishments will either close or alter their menus and ingredients until they can compete, and that means cutting corners in a way that could never happen in more affluent areas. This isn’t a rich vs. poor, white vs. black issue, it is a simple issue of the market. It’s the same thing that keeps Rolls Royce dealerships out of respectable middle-class neighborhoods. Those communities—as nice as they are—just don’t offer the clientele necessary to support the business. 

Surely, this obvious truth of market capitalism occurred to someone in LA’s City Council. Yet the measure passed with overwhelming support. Was it a panicky attempt to “do something” about the problem of obesity? For any issue, you can find politicians and other governmental functionaries who demand action today yet don’t reckon on the consequences of that action. They simply want to be able to grin at the press and their constituents and proclaim victory, which then firmly cements their position on the side of right. Is it simply that, groundwork for a nice photo-op when the first new Chili’s opens up, or is there something more to it? 

If this was really about health, wouldn’t they have targeted all restaurants and wouldn’t they have forced them to offer healthy alternatives to the cheap, saturated fat-laden slop they normally serve? That would conform to the argument presented in favor of this legislation. Then again, there are many places that insist restaurants use only non-saturated fats when they cook. Why not go that route? After all, some of these fats are actually good for you. Why not work to educate people about nutrition? Are they not responsible for what they shovel into their own mouths or do the City Council members think that Ronald McDonald and The King are holding guns to their heads? In other words: Why not try something that actually addresses the problem in a direct and measurable fashion? Why attack the problem economically through taxes and regulation? I can only imagine one reason, and it has nothing to do with health. 

What happens when upscale (or at least higher-scale) businesses move into an area? You start to see a lot of urban renewal. Old, ramshackle buildings get torn down and new buildings replace them. Old businesses are replaced by new ones and as values rise, those who can afford to stay, do. Those who cannot afford to are forced to move on. The fact that LA’s Community Redevelopment Agency has developed a package of incentives that include assistance in finding parcels of land, low-interest loans, matching funds for burying utility lines, discounted electricity rates, and tax credits is a sign that urban renewal is a big part of the plan. After all, only stand-alone fast food restaurants with drive-through lanes are subject to the ban. 

That would be tough to prove, but you must admit that all the pieces are there. Council member Jan Perry, who spearheaded the initiative, even mentions the proposal in her official biography: 

Perry is also involved in planning strategies that will maximize opportunities for development in South Los Angeles and share in downtown's job opportunities resulting from its increase in housing and entertainment centers.  

One of these initiatives is her proposed one-year moratorium on new fast food outlets in South Los Angeles. This measure, together with a grocery store and sit-down restaurant incentive package that she spearheaded, will provide opportunities for new businesses to invest in South Los Angeles. This will help the community to grow in a direction consistent with the desires and best interests of the people that live and work there. 

It does seem that Perry and her cronies are intent on making some big changes in that community. Those changes may even be for the better, it is hard to tell, but still it is always worrisome, especially for long-standing small businesses, when the government comes in and starts to monkey around with the local economy, determining which businesses are acceptable and which are not with little or no reflection on the immediate impact that these decisions will have on the people of the community, their eyes only on the still-distant prize. You can make the argument that government has the right to do this. Adult-oriented businesses can be run out of town. Some years ago, Mayor Daley of Chicago had all the gun shops run out of town. You could say that if you can do it with those businesses, why not with restaurants? The short answer to that question is that no one needs a strip joint or a gun shop. Food—affordable food—on the other hand is a necessity. 

So, how will all of this turn out? I don’t know. I do know that there is more to this than the cholesterol content of a Big Mac and I wonder what the owners of the small businesses that will be affected by these proposed changes said at the meetings, assuming they said anything at all. The chains and a couple of restaurant associations are protesting, but where was everyone when this plot was first hatched? 

I’ll keep you posted.