Evaluating the public debate over fast food zoning

South Los Angeles, one of the poorest and most racially diverse parts of LA, has the largest concentration of fast food restaurants in the city. Loma Linda, its affluent neighbor to the east, doesn't have a Burger King or a Carl's Jr. in sight. At first glance, the two cities seem to have little in common. But dig a little deeper, and you will find that they have a shared goal: to improve their residents' health. And they're doing so using something called strategic zoning.

Strategic zoning is a type of land use planning that can be used to improve the environments that contribute to chronic health problems. It can also be tailored to meet individual communities' needs: Advocates in Loma Linda are using zoning to keep fast food restaurants out of their city, and councilmembers in South LA are using it to prevent new ones from being built.

With fast food companies always on the hunt for a new place to build, and with marketers spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year to target youth (especially youth of color), there are many more places like South LA and Loma Linda that would benefit from this type of public health intervention. But before advocates can implement zoning policy, they must first know how to make the case for it.

With funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Healthy Eating Research program (and in collaboration with the Public Health Advocacy Institute and National Policy & Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity) BMSG studied news depictions of fast food zoning ordinances to help researchers, policymakers and public health advocates better understand debates on zoning.

Media analysis

BMSG examined the public debate from 2000 to 2013 that surrounded efforts to pass fast food zoning policies in communities across the country.

  • We analyzed the context in which the policies were passed (including the role of industry in combating zoning changes), the arguments that advocates and opponents made for and against the policies, and the extent to which debates over fast food zoning in higher income white communities differed from debates in low-income communities of color.
  • We explored the challenges facing advocates working in low-income communities and communities of color, where zoning policy may be portrayed more negatively than in wealthier communities.
  • Finally, we analyzed the extent to which zoning debates to improve children's food environments reflect differences in the types and strength of the zoning policies themselves.

Related publications:

Fast-food fights: News coverage of local efforts to improve food environments through land-use regulations, 2001–2013

Fast-food zoning for health: Lessons from newspaper coverage and legislative debates about land-use policies in U.S. communities, 2001-2013

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