Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Zoning to discourage fast food

As part of the Wisconsin State Health Plan, among a long list of actions to encourage better nutrition and more physical activity is a little suggestion that communities consider not allowing fast food outlets in low-income neighborhoods.

Of course, as soon as the story hit the papers, the comments section exploded with outrage. I just happened to be at a meeting at the Department of Health Service - a meeting for the Wisconsin Partnership on Activity and Nutrition - and heard some of the folks involved with the state report bemoaning the fact that this little provision was singled out.

My first thought was that zoning to prohibit certain types of food is pretty tough. But then I came up with a bit of an end-run to the issue. Below is an email I sent out to the statewide coalition working on overweight and obesity issues.

Of course, in true urban areas like Madison and Milwaukee, and the older downtowns of other municipalities, this might not work, and our largest cities are often also locations of large low-income populations, but it's a start.

Not sure about other areas of the state, but the suggestion in the state health plan to consider zoning to restrict fast food outlets in low income areas certainly created a stir on our local media outlets' forums.
Zoning against a certain type of menu is pretty tough, but I know something that will almost guarantee to keep away the big chains. As a bonus, it will improve safety for bicyclists and pedestrians, improve air quality, and might even encourage physical activity. What is this magic action?
Prohibit drive-through windows and aisles.
Almost no major fast food chain will build without one (except in heavily urbanized area), so you might be able to nip them in the bud with that alone. Drive-through windows and aisles also add "car space" to your landscape, making the remaining sidewalk and roadway more dangerous for walkers and bicyclists. They also contribute to car idling, which leads to bad air quality in the immediate area. And allowing people to stay in their cars, instead of asking them to walk a few dozen feet discourages physical activity.
Prohibiting drive-through windows and aisles is much easier to zone than the type of food they serve.
Just a hint for those looking for a tool.