LOS ANGELES — City officials are putting South Los Angeles on a diet. The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to place a moratorium on new fast food restaurants in an impoverished swath of the city with a proliferation of such eateries and above average rates of obesity.
The yearlong moratorium is intended to give the city time to attract restaurants that serve healthier food. The action, which the mayor must still sign into law, is believed to be the first of its kind by a major city to protect public health.
"Our communities have an extreme shortage of quality foods," City Councilman Bernard Parks said.
Representatives of fast-food chains said they support the goal of better diets but believe they are being unfairly targeted. They say they already offer healthier food items on their menus.
"It's not where you eat, it's what you eat," said Andrew Pudzer, president and chief executive of CKE Restaurants, parent company of Carl's Jr. "We were willing to work with the city on that, but they obviously weren't interested."
The California Restaurant Association and its members will consider a legal challenge to the ordinance, spokesman Andrew Casana said.
Thirty percent of adults in South Los Angeles area are obese, compared to 19.1 percent for the metropolitan area and 14.1 percent for the affluent Westside, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.
Research has shown that people will change eating habits when different foods are offered, but cost is a key factor in poor communities, said Kelly D. Brownell, director of Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.
"Cheap, unhealthy food and lack of access to healthy food is a recipe for obesity," Brownell said. "Diets improve when healthy food establishments enter these neighborhoods."
A report by the Community Health Councils found 73 percent of South Los Angeles restaurants were fast food, compared to 42 percent in West Los Angeles.
South Los Angeles resident Curtis English acknowledged that fast food is loaded with calories and cholesterol. But since he's unemployed and does not have a car, it serves as a cheap, convenient staple for him.
On Monday, he ate breakfast and lunch _ a sausage burrito and double cheeseburger, respectively _ at a McDonald's a few blocks from home for just $2.39.
"I don't think there's too many fast food places," he said. "People like it."
Others welcomed an opportunity to get different kinds of food into their neighborhood.
"They should open more healthy places," Dorothy Meighan said outside a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet. "There's too much fried stuff."
Councilwoman Jan Perry said that view repeatedly surfaced at the five community meetings she held during the past two years. Residents are tired of fast food, and many don't have cars to drive to places with other choices, she said.
Los Angeles' ban comes at a time when governments of all levels are increasingly viewing menus as a matter of public health. On Friday, California became the first state in the nation to bar trans fats, which lower levels of good cholesterol and increase bad cholesterol.
The moratorium, which can be extended up to a year, only affects standalone restaurants, not eateries located in malls or strip shopping centers. It defines fast-food restaurants as those that do not offer table service and provide a limited menu of pre-prepared or quickly heated food in disposable wrapping.
The definition exempts "fast-food casual" restaurants such as El Pollo Loco, Subway and Pastagina, which do not have drive-through windows or heat lamps and prepare fresh food to order.
The ordinance also makes it harder for existing fast-food restaurants to expand or remodel.
Rebeca Torres, a South Los Angeles mother of four, said she would welcome more dining choices, even if she had to pay a little more.
"They should have better things for children," she said. "This fast food really fattens them up."