Fast Food Woes

The banning of new construction of fast food restaurants in South LA just fascinates me.  I’m originally from Cape Cod, MA, where fast food restaurants are heavily regulated.   While I know it’s an apples and oranges comparison, since none of Cape Cod is urban, bear with me.  There is a point.

Hyannis, MA is the most suburban area of Cape Cod, and the one where the most chain businesses operate.  Hyannis is a village in the Town of Barnstable, where I grew up, though I grew up in the more rural end of town.  The towns of Falmouth and Yarmouth are similar in that they are a combination of rural and suburban areas with zoning laws that allow chain businesses to some extent and have a suburban center; the other 12 towns on the Cape are much more rural, and the town centers tend to focus more on having a chain grocery store or two, or perhaps a Dunkin Donuts (many aren’t allowed to serve hot food) or a local chain store, along with “mom and pop” type businesses.
Barnstable is one of the largest towns in Massachusetts- by land area, it’s #4, and is considerably larger than the City of Boston.  Even with all of the modernization of the town that’s taken place over the last 15 years or so, there are very few fast food restaurants.  There are 3 McDonald’s, 2 Burger Kings, 1 Wendy’s and 1 KFC in the town.  There’s also a few other fast food restaurants in the food court at the Mall (which is where one of the McDonald’s is).  That’s it- 6 free-standing fast food restaurants and mall food court over 60 square miles.  And that’s the most fast food on all of Cape Cod.  In Falmouth, there’s 1 McDonalds and 1 Burger King; In Yarmouth there’s a McDonald’s and a Wendy’s, and there’s another Wendy’s on the Lower Cape (on the Eastham/Orleans border), and two McDonald’s in the town of Bourne, near the highways and bridges connecting the Cape to the rest of the state.  I may have missed a couple, but that’s about it.  Most are located in places that are convenient for visitors to the Cape.
Very few of these are particularly close to where people live, either.  While they certainly are closer to places like large apartment complexes,  most are pretty inconvenient to walk to.  Granted, lots of places on Cape Cod are not convenient to walk to, but in this case it’s more of a positive thing.  Unfortunately, the few places that are close enough to walk from tend to be the homes of people who have less money to spend of food, and may be more likely to choose fast food, since it’s cheap.  In nearby Plymouth, MA, I can think of a McDonald’s that’s right at the head of the driveway leading to an apartment complex that’s primarily “affordable housing.”  I’m sure that it was presented to the town as a business where many of those residents would be able to work (and yes, many of them do), but it has the unfortunate advantage of having the residents there as a captive audience, as many do not have cars and most other restaurants are too far away to walk to.  There’s a flaw even in less population-dense communities.
However, back to my point.  Much of Massachusetts is zoned the same way that the Cape is.  The Islands and some of the more affluent communities around Boston have even stricter zoning laws, as do many of the other rural communities throughout the state; some are much more relaxed.  In one of the areas where I used to do therapy in people’s homes, I’d have to drive 15 miles out of my way to find a public restroom- which was at the nearest McDonald’s.  Even Boston has surprisingly few fast food restaurants.  Much of this has to do with zoning in relation to historic places.
What does all this have to do with anything?  The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has one of the lowest rates of obesity in the US.  When you look at this from the perspective of an environmental stance, many will look towards the walkability and public transportation in the city of Boston and the urban areas around it, but I think that’s just one factor.  Most of Massachusetts is not particularly walkable.  There is however, much less access to calorie dense fast-food.  
Let’s turn the LA issue around a bit.  Saletan argues that they’re making a zoning decision based on the content of the restaurants, as they serve unhealthy food.  He compares it to the way the sale of alcohol is regulated.   This is opposed to places like Massachusetts, where fast food restaurants are often prohibited because of “tackiness.”  Another way to put that in relation to historical places is that they’re serving food that has no historical relevance to the community.  If you look at it that way, they don’t belong anywhere.  Not in South LA, not in Massachusetts, not in anywhere period.  To say that “tackiness” is the reason that many are prohibited isn’t completely genuine.  Walk into a McDonald’s or a Burger King in many parts of New England, and you’ll often see a fireplace, a muted color-scheme and somewhat more comfortable seating than your average fast-food establishment; not to mention that the exterior will blend in with the other businesses in the area.  No, it’s not just “tackiness.”  It’s the whole idea of fast food.  These zoning laws were enacted in my area before obesity became a hot-button issue, but they still serve to combat the issue.
So why does it bring out the inner Libertarian in people who present as having otherwise liberal-ideologies?   This accomplishes the same thing, but for a different reason.  Clearly as a vegan, I would have no problem with all McDonald’s in the US being banned, as there’s nothing I can eat there anyway.  Doesn’t really affect me.  I’d be a little sad to see those tasty vegan fries at Burger King gone, but I’d manage without very much drama.  Then again, living now in a college area where I have access to a lot of cheap (and vegan!) food that’s not terribly bad for me and in walking distance, I probably shouldn’t have a say in what’s accessible to people who don’t have a choice.  The thing is, where one choice is taken away, another one will crop up.  First of all, when it comes to LA, they’re not at all talking about ripping down the existing fast food establishments.  They propose to not allow the construction of new ones.  Is there a real need for more fast food establishments there?  I’m going to guess not.  Perhaps with this new zoning law, it would allow for the establishment of businesses that focus more on less-calorie dense food that’s still affordable.  More full-service grocery store or produce stands.  A community garden.  Who knows the possibilities?  I’m sure that land-developers can come up with something that can both serve a need and be profitable; that’s what they do.  I guess my real point is that this law doesn’t have to serve to take choices away; it can be an opportunity to give real choices to people.
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