LOS ANGELES – In the impoverished neighborhood of South Los Angeles, fast food is the easiest cuisine to find — and that's a problem for elected officials who see it as an unhealthy source of calories and cholesterol.
The City Council was poised to vote Tuesday on a moratorium on new fast-food restaurants in a swath of the city where a proliferation of such eateries goes hand-in-hand with obesity.
"Our communities have an extreme shortage of quality foods," City Councilman Bernard Parks said.
The aim of the yearlong moratorium, which was approved last week in committee, is to give the city time to try to attract restaurants that serve healthier food.
The California Restaurant Association says the moratorium, which could be extended up to two years, is misguided.
Fast food "is the only industry that wants to be in South LA," said association spokesman Andrew Casana. "Sit-down restaurants don't want to go in. If they did, they'd be there. This moratorium isn't going to help them relocate."
The proposed ban comes at a time when governments of all levels are increasingly viewing menus as a matter of public health. Last Friday, California became the first state in the nation to bar trans fats, which lowers levels of good cholesterol and increases bad cholesterol.
It also comes as the Los Angeles City Council tackles issues beyond safety, schools and streets. The council last week decided to outlaw plastic bags.
Fast-food restaurants have found themselves in the frying pan in a number of cities. Some places, including Carmel-by-the Sea and Calistoga, have barred "formula" restaurants altogether; others have placed a cap on them — Arcata allows a maximum of nine fast-food eateries; others have prohibited the restaurants in certain areas, such as Port Jefferson, N.Y., in its waterfront area.
Most initiatives were designed to preserve a city's historic character. The Los Angeles bid is one of few that cite residents' health.
The mounting pressure has caused chains to insert healthier food choices in their menus. McDonalds offers salads and low-fat dressings; Burger King stocks Kids Meals with milk and apple pieces.
That's why the restaurant industry says it's unfair to blame them for fat people.
"What's next — security guards at the door saying 'You're overweight, you can't have a cheeseburger'?" Casana said.
But public health officials say obesity has reached epidemic proportions in low-income areas such as South Los Angeles and diet is the key reason.
According to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, 30 percent of adults in South Los Angeles area are obese, compared to 19.1 percent for the metropolitan area and 14.1 percent for the affluent westside. Minorities are particularly affected: 28.7 percent of Latinos and 27.7 percent of blacks are obese, compared to 16.6 percent of whites.
Perry says that's no accident. South LA residents lack healthy food options, including grocery stores, fresh produce markets — and full-service restaurants with wait staff and food prepared to order.
A report by the Community Health Councils found 73 percent of South L.A. restaurants were fast food, compared to 42 percent in West Los Angeles.
If the moratorium is passed, Perry wants to lure restaurateurs and grocery retailers to area.
Rebeca Torres, a South Los Angeles mother of four, said she would welcome more dining choices, even if she had to pay a little more. "They should have better things for children," she said. "This fast-food really fattens them up."