Popeyes Didn’t Do It

Blaming fast food chains for obesity misses the larger point.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

People-watching in the United States can be a taxing endeavor. Besides the unfavorable ratio of plants to concrete and pollutants, the West Philadelphia, Central Harlem and East Baltimore neighborhoods that I have called home over the last decade are filled with legions of morbidly obese, diabetic and hypertensive adults and children who struggle daily with their afflictions. Some are simply short of breath on the jungle gym; others have bigger quarrels with respiration, toting over-the-shoulder oxygen tanks like cumbersome handbags. None of these people are what I would call eyesores. Rather, they are reminders that one’s surroundings profoundly shape the body.

Taking control of these surroundings is apparently what a city council on the other side of the country had in mind when it voted to ban construction of new fast-food restaurants in South Los Angeles. Still awaiting the mayor’s signature, the moratorium is a response to alarming obesity rates in that part of the city. Though well intended, the fast-food ban is strikingly problematic. In addition to its arbitrariness—free-standing, fast-food restaurants are restricted while those located in malls and shopping centers are unaffected—the moratorium is born from a faulty equation: that bad food options equal fat communities.

Obesity is a far more complicated issue than this equation implies. Focusing on a lone factor—the number of fast-food restaurants—ignores too many other pieces in the puzzle. If we’re going to count fast-food restaurants, which are reported to comprise three out of every four eating establishments in South Los Angeles, shouldn’t we also spend time counting grocery stores, considering their placement and accessibility and even calculating the square footage that each of them devotes to, say, fresh produce?

Similarly, if we’re going to compare obesity rates, reportedly 10 percent higher there than in the rest of the city, isn’t it incumbent on policy-makers to compare the number of public parks and private gyms, bike paths and community pools and to factor in their respective safety and costs? Disparities in neighborhood health neither start nor stop with the number and type of restaurants. They also hinge on the way people shop, cook, exercise and the amenities available for each task. Pretending these things aren’t part of what we now call an obesity epidemic is akin to pointing fingers. And it’s much easier to blame food corporations than to reflect on just how, systematically, different parts of the city are set up to be healthier than others.

It’s not bad food options, but poor overall resources, that equate to fat neighborhoods. Neighborhoods “A” and “B” can sport identical rosters of fast-food outlets; but if one has more farmers markets, grocery stores with late hours and parking lots and clean, well-lit parks, it’s a safe bet that obesity in these two places has a different curve.

But there’s something else. The moratorium on fast-food restaurants wrongly aids and abets our obsession with this very category of food. On the surface, it’s easy to distinguish fast food from other types of food—and, in turn, “bad” food from “good” food. We all know fast food is characterized by bright menu boards, individually packaged condiments and convenient combos. It comes without table service, isn’t separated into courses and is rarely prepared from scratch. It can be ordered at the drive-through, retrieved in the time it takes to dig a couple crumpled bills from a pocket and wolfed down before passing through the next traffic laden intersection.

But somehow the fried chicken sitting in the steam table under a bevy of sneeze guards at the local grocery store—or at the nearest Whole Foods—falls well outside the category of fast food. So, too, does the fried chicken served at sit-down restaurants even though it presumably still gets seasoned, battered and submerged in a vat of simmering fat before arriving at the table. When foods like these, and countless others, escape the categorization of fastfood, they also escape the moral indictments levied against the fast-food industry for its assumed role in the obesity epidemic.

Certainly there is some truth in the argument that fast-food companies advertise and provide unhealthy foods at unprecedented rates and that they disproportionately target poor neighborhoods and people of color. But just like prepared-food cases in grocery stores and menus in sit-down restaurants, fast-food franchises offer a range of options. Increasingly these options include alternatives to the deep fried, heavily sauced and overwhelmingly salted. So should they, alone, be banned?

I can count on one hand the times I’ve ordered at a drive-through in the last five years. I’m the first person to look in disbelief at a thick, post-midnight crowd in Popeyes even though I know the local grocery store, juice bar and vegetable stand have probably all been closed for hours. But I still recognize that singularly denouncing fast-food restaurants demonizes a category of food establishments while hardly addressing the nutritional implications of individual food choices in those and other settings. If the moratorium on new, free-standing, fast-food establishments isn’t quickly accompanied by a holistic assessment of obesity’s causes and substantial outreach to consumers about their food choices, the city council will continue peering at body weight in South Los Angeles through an inadequately microscopic lens. It ought to switch its optic to a wide-angle.