Austin, like many American cities, has a Texas-size childhood obesity problem. According to data assembled earlier this year by Fitnessgram, a program that measures the fitness levels of Texas public school students from grades 3 to 12, forty-four percent of children in the Austin public schools are at risk of obesity—and 32 percent of students are considered to be at high risk for obesity.
To combat these negative health trends, the Austin City Council is considering an ordinance this week that would establish a “healthy food zone” around schools, municipal parks, child care centers, libraries, and recreation centers—essentially banning new fast-food restaurants from opening within a certain perimeter of youth-oriented establishments. It’s unclear whether such an ordinance will be passed by the City Council, which is scheduled to discuss the matter at its Nov. 21 meeting. Council Member Laura Morrison has advocated for similar food- and health-related ordinances and is a backer of the proposal, but she understands that a dialogue will need to happen first.
“I’m definitely interested in finding any way we can to promote healthy foods, especially in our children, where we have significant obesity rates,” she says. “I strongly support having the conversation.”
In California, a three-year ban on new fast-food restaurants was imposed in 2007 on areas of South Los Angeles for general public health reasons. The following year, the RAND Corporation released a study that was critical of the City Council's response to high obesity rates in the targeted neighborhoods, pointing out that the ban focused on areas where small markets were a more likely source of high-calorie, low-nutrient foods than fast-food restaurants. Earlier this year, however, Community Health Councils published a report that cites public health data showing both obesity and diabetes rates dropping in South L.A. between 2007 and 2011. CHC concludes, "Although a reduction in fast food restaurants is certainly not the only factor contributing to this decrease in negative nutrition-related health behaviors and health outcomes, evidence suggests the changes in the food retail environment facilitated by South LA’s fast food regulations and other policy initiatives may have played a role."
Austin completed its first "Community Health Assessment" in 2012, a survey that painted a picture of the city’s overall health. A follow-up "Community Health Improvement Plan" identified the top areas of concern highlighted by the assessment and put forth specific suggestions for addressing them. Topping the list of problem areas were chronic disease (and its connection to obesity) and a lack of access in some communities to quality food. The improvement plan suggested that Austin establish “healthy food zones” around places children gather by June 2016, a ruling that would allow existing restaurants to continue operation but ban future fast-food licenses in those areas. Makes sense, right?
Not to everyone. Lawyer Baylen Linnekin generally opposes all such bans on selling certain kinds of food—including the controversial large soda ban struck down earlier this year in New York City. Linnekin is executive director of Keep Food Legal, “the first and only nationwide membership organization devoted to food freedom.” He says the ban removes the element of choice and undermines parents’ responsibility for determining what their children eat.
“This proposal makes the Austin City Council appear like it's trying to tell adults that the government knows better than parents do how to raise children,” he says.
Morrison disagrees, pointing to restrictions on the sale of alcohol near schools as precedent for similar zoning regulations regarding unhealthy food. And residents have little say in whether junk food outlets open in their neighborhoods.
Take the case of the Austin neighborhood Dove Springs—which Morrison describes as having disproportionately high rates of childhood obesity. Recently, community members filed a petition with the city opposing the opening of a market that would sell mostly unhealthy foods and alcohol. The store would be near a school but just outside the zone where alcohol sales are prohibited. The City Council must now decide whether to allow the opening or to side with concerned neighbors. Even Meria Joel Carstarphen, Austin’s school superintendent, wrote to the City Council to register her disapproval of the project—the first time Morrison remembers the City Council getting such a letter from the superintendent.
It’s for disputes such as these, she says, that city government exists, because "we do have a public interest in public health." What bearing that mission has on the fate of the "healthy food zones" remains to be seen.