Food Elitism (Or McDonald's Is Not the Enemy)

On the heels of San Francisco's ban on Happy Meal toys comes word that the city of Los Angeles is considering new restrictions on fast-food restaurants in an area of South L.A. known to have high rates of obesity.

Oh, please.

Stuff like this drives me nuts. I'm sure it makes the well-off feel like They Are Doing Something, but what do they really think is going to happen? If they remove or restrict the McDonald's, Burger Kings, and Taco Bells, do they expect that healthy vegan restaurants serving salads of heirloom tomatoes and organic cucumber on a bed of locally-grown arugula are going to pop up? Do they think that people who would really like to have have a Quarter Pounder with Cheese, large fries and a chocolate shake are going to clamor for roasted vegetables on artisanal ciabatta?

Here's the thing: it's entirely possible to eat a reasonably healthy diet at a fast-food restaurant if you really want to. Most of them have salads, grilled chicken sandwiches, and diet sodas available (as a diabetic who was given an ultimatum to lose weight or else, I know this from first-hand experience). The problem is that by and large, people don't buy them. They'd rather have a bacon cheeseburger, and that shouldn't surprise anybody. Until and unless the doctor tells you you're going to lose a limb to diabetes, you're probably going to want the stuff that tastes good, and sugar, fat and smoked pork products taste really, really good. I saw it time and time again when I was a McDonald's manager--the public would say they want one thing, then order another. Eventually, the healthy stuff disappears, because the restaurant is a business (surprise, surprise) and it needs to, you know, make money. Preferably lots of it, because that's what stockholders like. (Full disclosure: I am a McDonald's stockholder.)

But, you say, there's an obesity problem! There is an incredibly high percentage of fast-food restaurants in South L.A.! We have to do something!

Um, no. No, we don't.

You see, everybody who walks through the door of a McDonald's and is over the age of 18 is an adult. They can vote, they can enlist in the armed forces, and they can bloody well order a McRib sandwich if they want to. Nobody's forcing them to do it, and nobody has any business telling them they can't. If someone tried to tell me where I could eat, or restrict the choices available to me, they'd have a hell of a fight on their hands. But then, I'm an educated white guy in his mid-40s with a graying beard. People don't tend to get all up in my face about stuff.

The people in the affected neighborhoods, on the other hand, are generally not educated white guys in their mid-40s, bearded or not. They're generally poorer, largely people of color, and mostly less educated. This does not make them any less citizens with the rights and privileges pertaining thereto, although there are those who seem to think that such is the case. Oddly, the ones who think that tend not to be rich white racist ultraconservative corporate bigots. They tend to be Volvo-driving latte-drinking yuppies with the best of intentions, those intentions being to protect the poor and downtrodden from the horrors of modern American corporate foodservice. The problem is that the poor and downtrodden don't necessarily want to be protected from that.

No, what the poor and the downtrodden want is jobs and economic opportunity, and banning an entire sector of American commerce is not likely to be helpful in this regard. Whatever you think of the fast-food business, it does bring jobs. Yes, they're minimum-wage jobs, and not likely to lead directly to anything more substantial. But it's a start. Remember, these are not areas that are chock-full of the educated. When you don't have a degree, or in many cases even a high-school diploma, you're not going to start at $50k a year with stock options and comprehensive health insurance. But you can get a job that will put food on your table and a roof over your head. Once people have that, their purchasing power allows other businesses to start and to flourish, and that's when economic recovery and job growth happens.

There's no denying we have an obesity problem in this country. But you can't legislate it away, and you can't force out businesses because you don't like what people are eating, or because you think you know what's good for them. Unless they're children, specifically your children, it's none of your damn business. If you really want to make a difference in the lives of people in South Los Angeles, do something about the drug trade. Do something about a culture that has normalized violence and romanticized gangs. Do something about single-parent households with absent fathers, if you can. But don't waste your time trying to regulate what other people put in their mouths. That's just being a busybody.

And that doesn't help anybody.