Tuesday, October 13, 2009

More Bogarting Bodegas

It seems to be piling on bodega week-with the NY Post leading off calling the local neighborhood stores, "price gougers." Now we find-courtesy of Julie Currie-that the Los Angelos City Council is mulling over a zoning regulation that would prohibit the expansion of small grocery stores in certain LA neighborhoods. As the Los Angelos Times reports: "Links found by researchers between snack foods and obesity in poor communities are prompting new calls for more regulation of convenience stores in South Los Angeles."

So faced with a fatter populace, the health fascists want to limit the one economic institution in poor neighborhoods that serves the community and provides a wide range of other desirable things: "A study by Santa Monica think tank Rand Corp. published in the research journal Health Affairs last week said calories from snacks were a likely culprit of higher obesity rates in South Los Angeles. The authors also found that South Los Angeles had a dramatically higher concentration of the type of small convenience store that sells caloric snacks than other sections of the city."

So, in a manner of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, LA wants to limit the number and location of small groceries: "We need to look at a moratorium on these convenience stores," said Lark Galloway-Gilliam, executive director of Community Health Councils Inc., a nonprofit health policy and education organization in South Los Angeles. The Los Angeles City Council is set to consider a proposal that would limit the density of these small food stores in South Los Angeles, said Councilwoman Jan Perry, a proponent of regulations adopted last year establishing a moratorium on new openings of fast-food restaurants whose 9th District includes much of South Los Angeles. The proposal, part of the developing Southeast Los Angeles Community Plan, would prohibit such small neighborhood markets from being closer than one-half mile from one another unless they sold fresh fruit and vegetables."

No one is saying what will replace the lost jobs-and the fact that these stores are predominately run by new immigrants will mean that this sector will be hardest hit. But listen to what's being said: "Separately, researchers looking at the shopping patterns of schoolchildren in urban Philadelphia found that more than half the 800 students they surveyed reported that they shopped at a corner store at least once a day, five times a week. Almost a third visited a store both before and after school. On average, the students spent about $1 and purchased 356 calories of snack foods and drinks each visit. Chips, candy, sugary beverages and gum were the most frequent purchases, according to a study published online today. It also will appear in the November edition of Pediatrics, a medical journal."

So, you see, these stores are doing what stores everywhere are supposed to do-meeting the demands of their customers, and playing a key role in neighborhood economic well-being. As a spokesperson for 7-Eleven comments, in opposition to the idea: "Convenience stores, whether they be a 7-Eleven or other, provide needed products and services to communities, especially lower income or areas with high crime," said Margaret Chabris, spokeswoman for Dallas-based 7-Eleven Inc., which has 50 stores within the Los Angeles city limits. "Sometimes larger supermarkets won't venture into the tougher neighborhoods, but mom-and-pop stores, locally run convenience stores, will," she said. "They provide food, groceries, paper products, money orders, ATM services and over-the-counter medicine around the clock. They can also be a safe haven when someone on the street or in the neighborhood is in trouble and needs a place to go or make a phone call."

And even the lead researcher in the Rand study questions the tactics of this kind of ban: "Despite the studies that link snack calories with higher obesity rates in poor communities, regulating the location of stores might not be helpful, said Roland Sturm, who coauthored the Rand study with colleague Deborah Cohen..."Clearly these stores are a source of excess calories, especially in children," Sturm said, "But people need access to food that is reachable..."I would be hesitant to prohibit the development of these stores," Sturm said, because residents of the community don't have other easy-to-reach places to purchase food to be consumed at home. "

And, memo to LA City Council: a healthy neighborhood economy is as important as healthy eating-so maybe you need to pay more attention to the demand side of the equation: "In the Philadelphia study, Temple University professor Kelley Borradaile and colleagues from the Food Trust, a Philadelphia nonprofit that works to improve access to affordable, healthful food, surveyed students in grades four to six outside 24 corner stores in an economically poor part of that city. "There needs to be more education in the schools as to what is a healthy snack," Borradaile said. "These kids need to learn how to walk through the corner store and make good decisions."

Education is the key-and if consumer demand shifts, so will the product inventory of the local groceries-as we have seen time and time again in gentrifying NYC neighborhoods. These attempts to bogart local businesses and mandate certain behavior-as we have seen with the farcical calorie posting rule in New York-are abhorrent and self-defeating; and infringe on the basic freedoms that we have to make our own choices, without the heavy hand of government coercing us.

All of this can be seen as part of a dangerous trend, where those who want to expand government's role and assert more control over how we live, are using health as the lever to get the door open for further expansion of public sector control over the private lives of Americans. Junk food isn't the beginning of this unhealthy trend, and it certainly won't stop with soda, chips and Twinkies.