Reducing Fast Food Outlets through Zoning

Over the last three decades, obesity rates in the United States have doubled in adults and tripled in children and adolescents, and reports now indicate that approximately one-third of children and adolescents and two-thirds of adults are either overweight or obese (1). Obesity has increased among all racial, ethnic, and income groups, but the highest rates occur among minorities and the poor (2, 3). This is particularly concerning given obesity’s link with numerous chronic health conditions, including diabetes, stroke, heart disease, high blood pressure, and some cancers (4).

While advocates correctly emphasize the importance of making healthy food more available to reduce obesity and other health problems, some researchers believe that such measures can only be effective if they are coupled with efforts to limit unhealthy foods as well (5). After all, eating a few more fruits and vegetables daily is unlikely to improve health if one is also consuming a Big Mac, fries and 32 ounces of soda a day. These researchers note that the policy rationale for reducing access to unhealthy foods is to make healthy choices the easier path.

In particular, fast food companies may play a key role in the obesity epidemic because of their large and inexpensive portion sizes, the high levels of calories, fat, and sodium contained in fast food, and the frequency with which those most affected by obesity (especially poor populations and children) consume fast food (6). Americans rely on fast food outlets for a substantial amount of their food, with almost half of food spending going to meals consumed outside the home (7). And not surprisingly, studies have found an association between eating fast food and higher fat consumption and weight (8, 9).

In considering how access to unhealthy foods might be reduced, municipal zoning codes may hold unique potential. Zoning laws determine how city land may be used and where these different uses may occur. As a police power, through which states are obligated to protect the public’s health, welfare, and safety, zoning laws may be a powerful tool for improving food environments (10). To help advocates better understand how zoning might be used to reduce access to unhealthy foods, this article provides information about how zoning has been used to influence fast food outlets, describes how various jurisdictions have approached the regulation of fast food, discusses potential arguments for and against the zoning of fast food, and describes some of the ways that the food industry has opposed efforts to zone fast food.

How has zoning been used to regulate fast food outlets?

City governments have developed a variety of ways of reducing fast food outlets through zoning. These typically fall into two categories: bans or restrictions (10). The most common types of zoning bans and restrictions to reduce fast food outlets are described briefly below (11). (For more detailed descriptions of these approaches, see Mair et al., 2005)

  1. Banning fast food outlets and/or drive-through service. Banning fast food outlets has been done via complete bans on new fast food outlets throughout a city or town, or less restrictively, as bans in which new fast food and/or drive-through service can only be allowed via conditional or special use permits.
  2. Banning “formula” restaurants. Formula businesses have been defined as those “that have standardized services, décor, methods of operation, and other features that make them virtually identical to businesses elsewhere.” Formula restaurants typically refer to large national chains, but in some cases have been interpreted to mean very small, local chains.
  3. Banning fast food in certain parts of a city. Often when fast food has been banned only from certain areas within a city, it is banned from areas that have a “unique character” that the city wants to preserve and fast food restaurants are banned for aesthetic reasons.
  4. Restricting the number of fast food outlets. This involves a cap on the number of fast food outlets that can exist in a given area or an entire city.
  5. Restricting the density of fast food outlets. Density of fast food outlets has been regulated per unit space (eg. one fast food outlet for every 400 feet of lot frontage along the street, as in the Westwood Village area of Los Angeles, California) and via space between fast food outlets.
  6. Regulating the distance between fast food outlets and other sites. These other sites have included schools, churches, hospitals, nursing homes, public recreation areas, and residentially zoned property.

Several municipalities have sought to ban fast food in the areas around schools.

Where has zoning been used to reduce fast food outlets?

South Los Angeles, California

In July 2008, the Los Angeles City Council approved a measure to place a one-year moratorium on the opening of new fast food establishments in several south Los Angeles neighborhoods with high fast food density and high obesity. The measure defined fast food as, “[a]ny establishment which dispenses food for consumption on or off the premises, and which has the following characteristics: a limited menu, items prepared in advance or prepared or heated quickly, no table orders, and food served in disposable wrapping or containers” (12). The new law only applied to stand-alone restaurants, not to those located inside malls or shopping centers (13). The rationale for implementing the measure as a moratorium was to give city planners time to assess the best use of minimal remaining land in these neighborhoods for the creation of a healthier food environment, and to attempt to draw grocery stores and sit-down restaurants to the area (13). The moratorium has now been extended to two years, and no evaluation data has yet been published regarding the measure’s effectiveness, though one analysis has suggested that the ban is not the best approach for addressing obesity in these areas (14).

Concord, Massachusetts

Concord, Massachusetts, a town of approximately 17,000 that is located within commuting distance of Boston, implemented a complete ban on drive-in and fast food restaurants in 1981 (11, 15). The rationale for the ordinance was two-fold: “to lessen congestion in the streets” and “to preserve and enhance the development of the natural, scenic and aesthetic qualities of the community” (11). City officials indicate that no one seems to miss the fast food outlets banned via the ordinance (15), however, to our knowledge, no health-related assessments of the ban’s effects have been conducted to date.

Detroit, Michigan

In Detroit, for close to two decades, the zoning code has prohibited most fast food restaurants from being built within 500 feet of all elementary, junior, and senior high schools (11, 15). The code’s language includes both “standard” restaurants and “carry-out or fast food” restaurants. As in Concord, no health-related evaluation data of this fast food restriction exists.

What kinds of arguments have been made for the zoning of fast food outlets?

Historically, the arguments used most commonly to reduce fast food outlets through zoning have been related to the increases fast food outlets can cause in traffic, pollution, and trash around the site (11), as well as the threat they may pose to pedestrian safety (16). Many have also successfully argued that fast food outlets be banned in specific areas in order to preserve a certain aesthetic to which fast food outlets do not conform (11).

A measure passed to ban new fast food outlets in South Los Angeles in 2008 (described above) marks the first time that health has been used as the explicit rationale for a change in the zoning of restaurants. The language of this ordinance reads that it was intended to “provide a strong and competitive commercial sector which best serves the needs of the community, attract uses which strengthen the economic base and expand market opportunities for existing and new businesses, enhance the appearance of commercial districts, and identify and address the over-concentration of uses which are detrimental to the health and welfare of the people of the community” (12).

What are the arguments against zoning fast food and potential responses to these arguments?

Argument 1: Reducing access to fast food in places considered “food deserts” could make residents vulnerable to not getting enough to eat.

Response: Fast food bans via zoning do not typically remove all fast food restaurants in a given area; they merely restrict the opening of new fast food outlets. The effect of such bans is to arrest the growth in fast food outlets and to make room for healthier food options. Stopping the growth of fast food outlets in areas considered “food deserts” may thus be an important first step in changing the overall food landscape in these neighborhoods, especially when banning fast food is implemented in conjunction with proactive efforts to increase healthy food options. Additionally, research indicates that hunger and obesity may be paradoxically intertwined. Insufficient income and food stamp benefits often force food choices based on economics rather than nutrition and health, and may encourage some people to overeat when they have money and go hungry when it runs out (5). If what people are overeating is fast food because that is what is most accessible, then the risks of obesity—even among populations that suffer from hunger—can be high.

Argument 2: Since zoning typically only affects new fast food outlets, it is not useful in reducing access to existing fast food restaurants.

Response: It’s true that eliminating or limiting the operation of existing fast food outlets through zoning is difficult and costly to implement. To address existing outlets, municipalities usually do one of three things: allow the business to continue, without changes or expansion; allow the business to continue operation for a specified period of time (amortization); or use eminent domain to provide the business owner with “just compensation” for the value of the business (17). This last route is the rarest of the three. Thus, in areas with a very high density of existing fast food outlets, the reduction that zoning could provide might be a legitimate concern. However, in most places, a prohibition or restriction of new fast food restaurants would likely substantially alter the food environment over time.

A poster exemplifying the “nanny state” argument.

Argument 3: It’s wrong for government to tell people what kinds of food they can have access to.

Response: This “nanny state” argument falls short when we recognize the extraordinary influence the fast food industry has on what we eat, as compared with government. Through the location of their outlets, as well as their prices, portion sizes, and advertising, fast food restaurants have made themselves an integral part of American life, just as they play an integral role in the obesity epidemic. Advocates suggest that we ask ourselves, “Who do we trust more to tell us what kinds of foods to eat: corporate executives with a financial bottom line or public health officials?”

Argument 4: There are other, better targets than fast food if we want to reduce obesity.

Response: The reduction of fast food outlets is rarely if ever intended as the sole approach to improving food environments. Rather, policies to reduce fast food are intended play a single but nonetheless critical role in a larger array of efforts to improve food environments.

How do food and restaurant industries oppose zoning changes?

The food and restaurant industries have opposed the zoning of fast food primarily through strong media responses to efforts to zone fast food and through lobbying. Media responses typically use the “nanny state” claim (Argument 3 above), and come from organizations like the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF), which is a food and restaurant industry front group. For instance, in response to a report released by Institute of Medicine in 2009 that recommended zoning of fast food in areas near schools to reduce childhood obesity, CCF’s director of research said, “The big picture is [activists] want to control what everybody is eating. The theory is that we’re too stupid to make our own eating choices, so let’s make sure the restaurants are far away from you.” The president and executive director of CCF is Rick Berman, a food and tobacco industry lobbyist who also runs Berman & Co., a restaurant and tobacco industry public affairs group that is estimated to earn $10 million annually.

The National Restaurant Association also opposes zoning changes that would limit fast food outlets, and has developed a well-oiled machine for lobbying state and local legislators. In a 2005 CorpWatch article, Michele Simon wrote, “The National Restaurant Association has 60,000 member companies representing more than 300,000 outlets. NRA works quite effectively in tandem with each state’s restaurant association, providing model legislation, talking points, and additional technical assistance.”

By Emma Tsui, Postdoctoral Fellow at the City University of New York School of Public Health at Hunter College and editor at Corporations and Health Watch.


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