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Obesity rising in South L.A. despite fast food ban

(Thinkstock.)
(Thinkstock.)

Obesity rates have gone up faster in South Los Angeles than in other parts of the city, despite a five-year-old ban on new fast-food restaurants billed as a way to curb unhealthy eating in the area, according to a Rand report released Wednesday.

The Los Angeles City Council approved the ban on new, stand-alone fast food restaurants in 2008, with supporters saying it would scale back the disproportionate number of fast food eateries serving unhealthy fare in South Los Angeles, as compared with other areas, such as West Los Angeles.

Since then, the obesity and overweight rates have increased in several South Los Angeles neighborhoods where the ban went into effect, significantly more so than in other areas, according to the Rand study.

Roland Sturm, the lead author of the study and a Rand economist, said the ban “may have symbolic value, but it has had no measurable impact in improving diets or reducing obesity.”

Sturm said the findings were unsurprising, because most food establishments in South Los Angeles were “small food stores or small restaurants with limited seating” and not covered by the ban, which covers “stand-alone fast-food restaurants.”

Small eateries or food stores that are not banned include ones that sell donuts, baked goods and ice cream, and could include taco stands and convenience stores.

Larger fast food chains have also continued to open in the Baldwin Hills, Leimert Park and other South and Southeast Los Angeles neighborhoods affected by the ban, according to the study.

Between 2008 and 2012, 17 new permits were issued for fast food chains that do not fit the definition of “stand-alone restaurant,” which is prohibited under the policy, according to Rand researchers.

These new food outlets avoided the ban because they are in shared buildings, such as strip malls.

The study also noted that when the ban was put in place, there were actually fewer of the “stand-alone” type of restaurants in South Los Angeles than in other areas.

Sturm and fellow researcher Aiko Hattori tracked permits issued by the Los Angeles County Department of Health to find out how many new fast food and other types of restaurants have opened in South Los Angeles since the ban.

They also consulted the results of the California Health Interview Survey to come up with the obesity and overweight rates of people living in South Los Angeles. A total of 141,597 adults aged 18 or over were interviewed in three separates rounds of the survey. About 700,000 people live in the area covered by the ban.

All parts of the city saw obesity and overweight rates increase from 2007 until 2012, but the South Los Angeles neighborhoods affected by the ban saw even greater increases. The consumption of fast food also increased citywide, according to the survey cited by Rand.

The only “bright spot” was a lower rate of people drinking soda, but this was true citywide, not just in the areas covered by the ban, Hattori said.

“Unfortunately, the rates of overweight and obesity increased and they increased fastest in the area subject to the fast food ban,” she said.

The ban also did not appear to change the “food environment,” or distribution of eatery types that tend to open in South Los Angeles. As with before, new permits issued in South Los Angeles tended to be for small food stores, while in other areas, they were for bigger independent restaurants, according to the Rand study.

The Rand findings appear to contradict a 2013 study by the Community Health Councils in South Los Angeles that found obesity rates declined 3 percent and diabetes by 2 percent since the ban.

Gwendolyn Flynn, the nonprofit organization’s nutrition resources development policy director, said the ban has done the job of controlling the “growth of stand-alone fast food restaurants.”

“There have been permitting of other restaurants that are within strip malls that are in shared use kind of buildings, but in terms of stand-alone restaurants, it has been effective in regulating that growth,” Flynn said.

The hope was to use sites that would have been taken up by stand-alone fast food restaurants to “promote other ways of getting fresher foods closer to folks,” such as urban gardens, Flynn said.

She said it is still “too early to tell” what the effect of the ban will be on people’s eating habits, which she said “have been built up over a lifetime.”

She added the ban was never supposed to be an “end all” solution, and that other “strategies and policies” are needed to fully address obesity.

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