- Author: Rose Hayden-Smith
For food policy and public health wonks, the summer of 2008 will go down in the books, and California is leading the way. On July 27th, I blogged about the state's newly passed legislation requiring restaurants to cook without artery-clogging trans fats. http://ucanr.org/blogs/blogcore/postdetail.cfm?postnum=532In
On July 29th, the Los Angeles City Council approved a moratorium on new fast food restaurants in South Los Angeles, a move that was not without controversy. And just yesterday, August 7th, Los Angeles County Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Mike Antonovich announced a proposal that will require fast food and chain restaurants to provide calorie counts for their menu items. While the legislation would only apply to unincorporated areas of the county, it would affect millions of residents. It comes to a vote next week, and is anticipated to receive a strong endorsement from the Los Angeles City Council.
Is this good public policy? Or do these measures represent the worst aspects of what some term the "nanny state?"
I don't claim to have the answers to these difficult questions, but I have reviewed a variety of statistics in the last two days. And after considering these statistics, I do understand why Los Angeles policy makers and legislators are feeling compelled to make some changes.
According to Los Angeles County Public Health statistics, the percentage of obese adults in the county increased from 14.3 percent in 1997 to 20.9 percent in 2005. So what does this mean?
This figure represents a lot of people. Per some sources, Los Angeles County is the most populous in the nation, with more than 10 million residents. (To give you an idea of the bigness of that figure, 27% of California's 38 million residents live in LA County).
It's got a young population, too: 28% of LA County residents are under the age of 18, and nearly 40% of the population is under the age of 24. About 15% of the county's population lives below the poverty line. (And that number is conservative: it doesn't reflect the alarming increase in families being pushed below the poverty line as the price of food and fuel skyrockets). 1 in 4 children living in the county are included in that sad statistic. And a significant percent of the county's population is uninsured; per the County's Public Health Department, 1 in 4 Los Angeles County children lack health insurance.
And many of those children desperately need medical care, because the childhood obesity rate in Los Angeles County is high. Based on California Physical Fitness testing assessments mandated for 5th, 7th and 9th graders, more than 1 in 5 of the county's students are obese. An excellent community survey conducted by the County's Department of Public Health http://lacounty.info/omd/q3_2007/cms1_077502.pdf showed a strong correlation between childhood obesity and economic hardship. This means that if you are a child living in poverty in Los Angeles County, you are more likely to be obese, for a number of reasons.
Will banning trans fats, providing moratoriums on fast food in poorer neighborhoods and requiring menu labeling help solve these problems?
I don't know, but it bears watching.
In the meantime, I've seen little legislation that promotes school, home and community gardening. That bears watching, too. Because banning "bad" foods is not the real solution. Providing healthier choices is...healthier choices like the fruits and vegetables that can be grown in a school, home or community garden.
"A Garden for Everyone. Everyone in a Garden."