Thursday, June 22, 2006

Zoning for Fast Food?

At yesterday's City Council Health Committee hearing the committee's chair, Councilman Joel Rivera, "proposed overhauling the city's zoning rules to limit the number of fast food restaurants in neighborhoods where obesity is epidemic among youths." Obesity was the subject of the hearing.

The Alliance applauds Rivera's desire to do something about the obesity epidemic. We do, however, think there are better ways to do it that don't involve restrictive zoning changes that may not even be feasible. The Alliance doesn't hold a great deal of sympathy for the fast food chains that have pushed out indigenous neighborhood eateries, but zoning changes could have unintentional consequences and could hurt the growth of neighborhood economies.

In the first place even coming up with a definition of fast food wouldn't be easy. As Mitchell Moss of NYU points out in today's NY Daily News, "it's unlikely any zoning resolution could dictate that level of detail. The zoning code for eating and drinking establishments does not distinguish types of food. "

Testifying yesterday at the hearing, though, was our good friend, Dr. Lynn Silver of the NYC DOH. Silver is in charge of the city's efforts to reduce obesity rates in the city's poorest neighborhoods. The doctor told the committee that "restrictive zoning seemed to be a 'perfect example' of how government could help control the epidemic."

Not so fast. As one Yonkers teacher told the NY Post, "'Trying to hide a donut won't work...,' said Gary Londis...He said teaching kids to exercise and eat better would be more practical." Exactly so. In a city where 21% of kindergarteners are already obese drastic intervention is necessary.

Which brings us to Rivera's major new health initiative: the expansion of Dr. Oz's Health Corps concept. Health Corps, using a Peace Corps-like model, trains volunteers who then are placed in underserved high schools to teach various health-based lessons. The program is already being piloted in two city high schools and is designed to create a grass roots activism for health among the city's young people. Judging from its initial reception, the program could be the beginning of an attitude revolution, one that could lead to the kind of life-style changes that would make any zoning change superfluous.

Assisting in these lifestyle alternations should be the fast food companies that Councilman Rivera cites. It would make perfect sense for the McDonalds of the world to team up with Health Corps to encourage healthy eating and proper exercise. Childhood obesity and diabetes are socially and economically costly and the best way to combat these epidemics is, in partnership with food retailers, to convince young people to make improved choices.