CHOICE IS NOT ON THE MENU

On the West coast, we have legislators looking to ban new fast food outlets in a neighborhood where junk food is often the only option. On the East coast, a federal judge just struck down a law that required fast food restaurants to include calorie counts on their menus.

But neither of these efforts to discourage junk food consumption would solve the problem of what people are supposed to eat, instead. Are we also going to pass laws requiring that for every KFC, there has to be a Jamba Juice? Are city agencies going to give grants to mom-and-pop health food shops or crunchy granola cafes that would bring healthier choices to underserved communities?

Residents of South L.A. have the highest concentration of fast food joints in the city, according to an analysis by the Los Angeles Times, and far fewer grocery stores than other L.A. neighborhoods. Councilwoman Jan Perry, who represents South L.A. and proposed the two-year moratorium on new fast food outlets, told the Times, “"The people don't want them, but when they don't have any other options, they may gravitate to what's there."

Not surprisingly, South L.A. has the highest rate of diabetes in the county, and obesity levels are greater, too. Residents have become addicted to the cheapness and convenience of junk food in a community where you need a car to drive to other neighborhoods if you’re looking for more wholesome options.

And that’s a missed opportunity for entrepreneurs as well as folks seeking healthier foods. According to the Times, a 2005 market study found that South L.A. “loses more than $400 million annually in general merchandise, grocery and restaurant sales to outside areas.”

So, evidently, there’s the potential for a win-win situation here, whereby businesses could grow their own bottom lines while helping folks fight their ever-expanding waistlines. If it takes an ordinance against fast food joints to get this better-food-chain-train in motion, then so be it.

Of course, the restaurant industry in L.A. objects to this proposal as strenuously as the New York restaurateurs opposed the requirement to post calories. And let’s not forget the Big Food-financed, oxymoronic Center for Consumer Freedom, which is always happy to fight for Your Right Not to Know. From the Chicago Tribune:

…Justin Wilson of the Center for Consumer Freedom, which gets money from the food industry, said consumers aren't crying out for menu calorie counts.

"There's a lot of consumers who want to have a meal and not worry about taking out a calculator," he said. "We're a little concerned we're creating a warning-label society."

Yes, and they’re even more concerned that when you provide consumers with more facts about the foods they’re about to choose, they start to make healthier choices, as the success of New England supermarket chain Hannaford’s “Guiding Stars” program proves.

The FDA, recognizing the need for better consumer information, held a preliminary hearing on Monday to consider whether it should establish some kind of national ratings system that would simplify choices for consumers. As it stands now, food manufacturers in the U.S. and abroad are devising their own standards, which are inconsistent and may leave shoppers befuddled.

That’s why Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) is hoping to push legislation that would require the FDA to establish a single system. Harkin released a statement that read, in part:

"The proliferation of different nutrition symbols on food packaging, well-intended as it may be, is likely to further confuse, rather than assist, American consumers who are trying to make good nutrition choices for themselves and their families. FDA should take meaningful steps to establish some consistency to these many different systems of nutrition symbols."

The Center for Science in the Public Interest has also filed a petition asking for a national front-label symbol system. Referring to Britain’s “traffic light” system, which ranks foods by their fat, salt, and sugar content and gives them green, yellow or red lights, CSPI’s executive director, Michael Jacobson, said:

"You could send a child to the store with 20 bucks and say, 'Johnny, you can buy whatever you want as long as it has a green dot — and you can get one red-dot food.”

The anti-regulation “Nanny state” naysayers insist that it’s unfair to force food manufacturers to provide consumers with so much guidance. After all, isn’t it pretty obvious that some foods are healthier than others?

Well, actually, no, sometimes it’s not. Brian Lehrer, who hosts a call-in show on WNYC, our local NPR station, did a segment on this subject today with Marion Nestle and Diane Brady, who writes for Business Week, and a woman called in to tell the story of how virtuous she felt about her menu choice till she read the fine print:

Caller: “I was sitting there eating a buffalo chicken salad thinking I had selected the most appropriate thing on the menu and kind of looking at the people at the table next to me thinking, oh, how unhealthy, they’re having a burger, and the menu happened to have calorie counts and fat content and I looked down and I realized that I was about thirty percent higher in fat content in my meal than the person sitting next to me…”

Another caller said she always reads the labels when she shops:

Caller: “It always really interests me when you find a brand in the grocery store that’s organic and you think it’s going to be very healthy and then you look and the first ingredient is high fructose corn syrup…

Brian Lehrer: “…but it’s organic high fructose corn syrup! Marion Nestle, is there such a thing as organic high fructose corn syrup?

Marion Nestle: “oh, of course there is…and most people think it doesn’t have any calories! I mean, that’s another reason why calorie labeling is so important, because there’s now very, very good research that indicates that if people think that something’s healthy, they underestimate the number of calories that it has by a very, very large fraction—and this is just human nature.”

This is the challenge we face today, in a nutshell; how do we get people to literally stop drinking the KoolAid, even if it’s sweetened with organic high fructose corn syrup?

Keeping space open, and nutrition not always obvious

One thing to keep in mind is that every time a vacant lot is filled with a fast food restaurant, that is one more place that will not contain a grocery store for a long time. Fast food restaurants fail and their buildings need to be reused, but how often do you see something other than another restaurant fill the space? The South LA plan can perhaps be seen as taking a break from building to re-think how the neighborhood should look.

A field poll from back in April found that consumers don't know about fat and calories in restaurant food. The San Francisco Chronicle reported on the poll:

"The poll asked 523 registered voters to answer four seemingly simple questions: Pick out the dishes with the most calories, the fewest calories, the least salt and the most fat from among menu items from Denny's, Chili's, Romano's Macaroni Grill and McDonald's. (To take the quiz, and find out about that Caesar salad, see graphic.) Just as on the menus, the only information given was the name of the dish.

"By any measure, the respondents flunked. Two-thirds answered all four questions wrong. And no one -- not one single person -- got all four right. The results were the same regardless of age, income, education or political party, according to the poll.

...

"For the record, only three of 13 Chronicle Food section staffers who took the quiz answered two questions right; seven got one correct answer; and three earned zeroes. No one answered even three of the four questions correctly."