So a new report, Slowing Down Fast Food: A policy guide for healthier kids and families, on how we can fight back, couldn't come at a better time. A joint project of Corporate Accountability International and Dr. Nicholas Freudenberg and Monica Gagnon of The City University of New York, the guide focuses on four local policy approaches: school policy, "healthy" zoning, curbing kid-focused marketing, and redirecting subsidies to healthier businesses. (Full disclosure: I am a consultant for Corporate Accountability.)
While it's true that things in Washington are pretty hopeless, many viable policy options exists at the local level and this report offers case studies and tips for success, plus a whole lot of inspiration.
For example, St. Paul public schools (Minnesota's second largest school district with 64 schools) formed a wellness committee and got a strong policy passed that (among other provisions) prohibits marketing of brands promoting low-nutrition foods and beverages. Advocates brought in researchers from the nearby university, who helped make the connection between food and academic achievement. The policy has been so successful that a nearby hospital has expressed interest in following the school district's lead. That's how good local policy ideas can spread.
The guide's section on zoning restrictions provides several examples of local policies that have been enacted across the country. For example, restrictions on chain restaurants (either outright bans or limits on the number permissible) exist in several California cities, as well as cities in Massachusetts and Maine. An ordinance dating back to 1978 in Detroit prohibits fast food outlets within 500 feet of schools, thus reducing children's exposure to harmful marketing messages.
In my own neighborhood in Oakland, California in 2004, I was part of a successful effort to keep McDonald's from moving in directly across the street from my beloved Grand Lake farmers market. It just took a few dedicated leaders to organize to stop the fast food monster, along with supportive policymakers. I spoke to an overflow crowd at the local church and was never more proud of my community. (I also worried about what other neighborhood that franchisee probably went to instead.)
In another inspiring success story, in 2008, the city of Los Angeles placed a one-year moratorium on new fast food outlets in south and east L.A, two particularly poor areas with a high density of fast food. Steps that helped get the job done included surveys and other data gathering, finding a champion in the city council, speaking out at council meetings, and of course, a ton of organizing and coalition building. This was the first time a government placed a moratorium on fast food for health reasons. Last year, the city council extended the moratorium indefinitely.
Another success story I wrote about in 2010, when San Francisco enacted a law to place nutrition standards on kids' meals that include a toy incentive. Of course, the fast food industry, especially McDonald's, fought the effort vociferously. But a broad coalition of Bay Area groups, working in coordination with Corporate Accountability International, was able to overcome the lobbying onslaught through true grassroots mobilization.
The specific tactics that the fast food industry deployed in this fight are instructive and included:
1) Stakeholder status. McDonald's attempted to insert itself into the policy-making process, proposing changes to the bill that would have gutted it;
2) Scare tactics. Once they realized that wouldn't work, McDonald's and friends shifted to threatening the city with legal action, regardless of how baseless their claims were;
3) Distractions with PR. McDonald's hired a PR firm, which (among other tactics) tried to convince ordinance author Supervisor Eric Mar that voluntary standards would work.
Despite the hard-won victory, as I wrote about last December, McDonald's cynically found a way around complying with the law. However, much was gained in the process, including bringing greater awareness to the issue. Also, soon after the bill's passage, Jack in the Box pulled toys from its kids' meals.
Another promising local approach is ending public subsidies such as tax incentives and zoning breaks. Some cities offer small business subsidies to fast food franchises, which seems rather ironic for multinational corporations like Subway and KFC. As Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer has noted, "There is no defensible policy rationale for subsidizing fast food restaurants."
The guide also lists numerous other ideas, including restrictions on marketing to children, menu labeling, taxation, and counter-marketing strategies. The authors conclude while no one community can do every action, "everyone can do something that will help to create food environments that will guarantee the health of our children and our communities."
Also included is a handy Action Guide, with specific steps for how to get your community engaged such as, assessing the political landscape, framing and messaging, and most importantly, building community support.
There has never been a better time to get active and take a stand against the infiltration of fast food in your neighborhood. We certainly cannot wait for policymakers in Washington to protect the people. Download Slowing Down Fast Food and start mobilizing your community. I guarantee it will be a challenging yet rewarding experience.
Then be sure to tell me how it goes, so I can write about your success story next.