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October 14, 2009

Complex Problems Deserve Thoughtful Responses

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/complex_problems_deserve_thoughtful_responses_20091014/

Last week The Wide Angle reported on a Rand Corp. study that debunked the rationale behind last year’s Los Angeles City Council ordinance that limited fast food outlets in South Los Angeles for a year. As we reported,

Well, here comes the respected Rand Corp. and it concludes what seems obvious, that “the premises for the ban were questionable…contrary to ‘conventional wisdom,’ the density of fast-food chain restaurants per capita is actually less in South Los Angeles than in other parts of the city…..limiting the type of restaurants that move to the area isn’t likely to solve the problem.”

Interestingly, the study found no difference in fruit and vegetable consumption between residents of South Los Angeles and people in other areas. It also attributed the greater likelihood of South LA residents to be obese to their consuming more snacks and sodas than people who lived in other areas.

One would think that the findings of Rand’s study would give our city leaders pause before once again jumping into the complex arena where personal preferences, economics and a myriad of other influences effect individual choices.

That assumption would be a mistake.

Councilmember Jan Perry, the author of last year’s resolution, is at it again. This time, she seeks to prevent obesity in South LA (although she describes the effort as purely a “land use” matter) by regulating convenience stores. Her proposal would limit the density of small food stores in South LA by requiring a distance of at least half a mile between stores unless they sell fresh fruit and vegetables.

A seemingly noble aim, but to think that this measure is going to make any appreciable difference in food consumption patterns in South LA is silliness.

The Rand study couldn’t be any more explicit in its description of what influences residents of South LA, or any other area for that matter, to consume what it describes as “snack” calories—-“discretionary calories from cookies, candy, salty snacks, soda and alcohol”—that do not satisfy other nutritional needs. People are influenced by “external cues,” which include pictures, ads and food itself. These “snack” calories are “sold widely in nonfood establishments such as car washes, bookstores, hardware stores, laundromats, and office buildings, which do not need special food licenses nor are subject to health regulations or inspections. The ubiquitous availability of food can be overwhelming and artificially stimulate hunger and cravings for food, regardless of physiological needs”

Folks who can’t find the “snack calories” they crave at their local convenience store will cross the street to their local car wash, laundromat, or hardware store because “junk” food is truly “ubiquitous.” As the author of the Rand study has said in response to the Perry initiative, “I would be hesitant to prohibit the development of these stores” because they serve other needs, “people need access to food that is reachable.”

The Rand authors suggest that “portion control or counteradvertising might be more likely to lead to change as far as diet and obesity are concerned.” To confound the issue and demonstrate its complexity, Rand also found that “there are essentially no differences in fruit and vegetable consumption between South Los Angeles residents and others—-in the proportion of the population having five servings of fruit or vegetables a day, average daily servings of fruit, or average daily servings of vegetables.”

Closing off one source of “snack calories” when are there literally dozens of others makes the little Dutch boy with his finger in the cracking dike seem like a genius. Obviously, we can’t curtail the omnipresence of junk food, why not at least focus on avenues that might yield some success—education, advertising, menu labeling,etc.

Many of the problems Los Angeles faces are complex and demand serious examination and thought; they also deserve serious, and not necessarily media-genic, responses from our local leaders. We do a disservice to the people who need help when we assuage our consciences by doing things that make no real world difference but have the appearance of change.

Over 35 years ago, the late Irving Kristol warned of this type of reform that is “more concerned with the kind of symbolic action that gratifies the passions of the reformer than with the efficacy of the reforms themselves.”

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