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South LA fast food ban has not improved health, study says

A McDonald's in South Los Angeles. A new study finds that a 2008 ban on new fast food restaurants in South L.A. has not improved health as supporters had hoped. David McNew/Getty Images

Six years after the Los Angeles City Council placed a ban on new fast food restaurants in South L.A. in an effort to lower obesity and fast food consumption there, a study by the RAND Corporation finds the policy has done neither.

In fact, both fast food consumption and obesity rates have continued to rise as fast as or faster than in the rest of the city, the study found.

"Unfortunately, obesity rates keep going up. Body mass index keeps going up. Fast food consumption keeps going up," said Roland Sturm, the study's lead author. "All the problems still exist. So this did not address it, and to believe that it did is a mistake."

The study used county permitting records to track the kinds of food establishments that have opened in the areas of South L.A. covered by the ban since it took effect in 2008. It also used data from UCLA’s California Health Interview Survey to compare how obesity rates, people's food choices and other health indicators changed in those areas from 2007 to 2012.

It found that the rate of new fast food restaurants in South L.A. actually kept pace with the rate of new fast food joints citywide, mainly because the new restaurants opened in shopping centers and strip malls, and were therefore not subject to the ban, which only prohibits free-standing restaurants with drive-thrus and parking. Sturm said South L.A.'s food landscape looks much the same today as it did before the fast food ban took effect.

As fast food consumption continued to rise, so did obesity rates, the study found. In fact, it found that the obesity gap between South L.A. and the rest of the city has widened dramatically.

In 2007, 63 percent of South L.A. residents were overweight or obese. By 2012, 75 percent were. By comparison, during that same period the portion of people who were overweight or obese in the rest of the city ticked up only slightly, from 55 to 56 percent.

Sturm said part of the problem appears to be that the ban on new fast food restaurants does nothing to increase options for healthier food. Nor does it address another major source of unhealthy food in South L.A.: small convenience stores.

Since 2008, nearly half of the licenses issued for new retail food outlets in South L.A. have been for very small food stores like convenience marts, the study found.

Gwendolyn Flynn of the Community Health Councils, a South L.A. nonprofit that supported the fast food ban, said the findings do not surprise her. But she said she still thinks the fast food ban is worthwhile.

"We’ve always said that it has to be done in the context of other strategies in order for there to be the movement that we’re looking for," she said.

For example, her group and others are working to encourage grocery stores to move into South L.A., she said. They’re also promoting urban agriculture and community gardens, and recently succeeded in getting the L.A. City Council to allow people to grow food in their parkways, the strip of city-owned land that abuts the curb in front of people's homes.

There are also initiatives underway to encourage owners of small markets to carry healthier options, Flynn added.

"Were supporting each other in terms of finding these solutions," she said. "The fast food ban is not the silver bullet."