You stroll into the Marketplace on a Friday morning, grabbing a bowl of oatmeal with chopped walnuts sprinkled on top and a slightly underripe banana as you walk past the display of fruit. You were up far too late the night before working on a paper, but who cares? Even if your sleep schedule is suffering, your diet is not. Not when your school’s food service has such a vast array of healthy options available at your disposal.
Not everyone is so fortunate. We Occidental students may complain every now and then about the repetitive menu or the lack of options on campus, but in reality, our dietary concerns are minimal. We do not have to resort to fast food because it is all we can afford, nor do we have to prioritize convenience over nutrition, as do more than 700,000 South Los Angeles residents affected by the 2008 ban placed on the development of new fast food establishments.
Perhaps the attempt to reduce obesity rates by targeting fast food establishments was misguided. The focus should be not on the fast food industry itself, but rather on increasing the availability of healthy, equally convenient options.
Occidental students often take the fresh produce and the vegan, gluten-free options available to us in our Occidental bubble for granted. In the real world, eating as healthily would require significantly more time and energy. It would be unrealistic, however, to expend such resources if unhealthy food options were both more affordable and more accessible, as is the case in food deserts such as the South LA zone that was targeted in the fast food ban.
The ban appears to have done more harm than good. A study conducted by Rand Corp. found that the percentage of overweight or obese people in South LA had actually increased from 2008 to 2012. Obesity rates rose from 63 percent to 75 percent, as opposed to the 57-58 percent increase in the rest of LA County.
The fast food ban was neither extensive nor long enough. Only free-standing fast food establishments were affected—of which there were not many to begin with—and five years is not long enough to see significant change. A ban can, in theory, reduce access to fast food, but it cannot change the longstanding cultural mindset in which fast food is so deeply ingrained.
According to a study done by the Food Trust, “Low-income zip codes have 25 percent fewer chain supermarkets … compared to middle-income zip codes.” The same study found that “predominantly black zip codes have about half the number of chain supermarkets compared to predominantly white zip codes, and predominantly Latino areas have only a third as many.”
South LA is 57 percent Latino and 38 percent black. Forty one percent of households in the area have an income of $20,000 or less.
While such inherent racial bias in favor of white communities cannot be eliminated overnight, the first step to both racial equality and a decrease in obesity rates is to increase universal access to nutritious, affordable foods. Without this, the tendency to fall back on fast food and the resulting sky-high obesity rates are only going to become even more prominent in society.
Affordable healthy options should be a universal right rather than one that is exclusive to those affluent enough to be able to prioritize their health. The fast food ban may have proven unsuccessful, but it was not targeting the right problem to begin with. If we are ever to shed the undesirable title of most obese country, eliminating food deserts is the true priority.