Fast Food Restrictions Fatten Up the Government

Say what you will about the nation's obesity crisis. It gives every level of government a bellyful of new reasons to save you from yourself. And isn't that what we need? This seems to be the obsession in California, from the statehouse to the home of the stars.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger found time in his busy day, away from multiple wildfires and runaway budgets, to sign bill AB97, forbidding restaurants from using trans fats by 2010 and banning that substance from all baked goods by 2011. In the minority voting against the bill was Assemblyman Paul Cook, who raised the pregnant questions: "How much are we going to regulate people's diets? What's next, a bag of potato chips? Coffee? Soda?"

About the same day came the ruling by the Los Angeles City Council. Councilwoman Jan Perry has worked for six long years in the wilderness, but now her time has come. Awaiting a signature from the mayor, the council unanimously declared a moratorium, essentially a ban, on all new fast food outlets in south LA. Existing fast food restaurants cannot expand or remodel. This ban covers a 32-square-mile area containing 500,000 residents. If the poor want a burger and fries, the message depends on who you're listening to. It's either "your salvation draws near" or "your days are numbered."

Activists pushing the ban called it an end to "food apartheid," saying there is one kind of food in south LA but a different and better kind elsewhere. A hoped-for consequence of the ban is a growth in non-drive-through, sit-down restaurants with food choices the activists would agree with.

A moratorium in LA may run two years, with the possibility of two six-month extensions. What would happen in that time? City staff would craft new zoning rules. If an existing restaurant said they needed to expand, they could apply as a "hardship case." Perry said she would expect the city to come up with financial assistance for some restaurants on the way to being put out of business by her regulation. It's a good thing there's so much slack in the LA city budget that they can give money away where it wasn't needed before.

The city staff would work to attract sit-down restaurants with healthier food choices. Why haven't these restaurants already located in this area of half a million people? One would imagine they could count the numbers, locate available land, and gauge interest in their menus. Could it be that the ordinary residents prefer burritos to sushi?

Arguments against the rule fell like salt from French fries. Fast food workers told the council how their businesses provide jobs in the poorest sections of town, jobs these residents depend on. Providers like McDonalds have already been listing nutritional information and healthier food choices. Didn't matter to the LA City Council. The time had come for these merchants of grease to feel the directing hand of regulation. Otherwise, who knows how they'll behave?

When you cut through the empty rhetorical support for slimming the fat off children, you get to the real issue: the reduction of freedom on multiple levels. How is a business supposed to operate when it can't renovate or expand without proving to the city it's a hardship case? Freedom flies away as the business owner and the private citizen's right to buy and sell and work are restricted.

If I've wanted Popeye's Chicken to move into my neighborhood and it can't because the city council said "no," the city council has interfered with my freedom of choice. No one is stopping "Jane's Healthy Choice Eatery" from moving in. This local government wants to dictate movement away from a taste for Popeye's independent of market forces. When these residences voted with their dollars for fast food, the LA council's position is they've voted wrong. They need to be escorted back to the voting booth and instructed how to vote. In the words of the progressives, "they need to be better educated."

Why pay attention to California? Because the state and its cities are trendsetters. By virtue of the state's size and population it often carries influence beyond its borders. This time it's not cars or clothing or who can get married. This time, it's to force changes in our personal food choices. Not only what we eat, but also what we sell, and whether we can expand our business to sell more of the food an advocacy group doesn't want you to eat.

New York City Council member Eric Gioia likes what's happening in Los Angeles. He's proposing the same thing there: "People are literally being poisoned by their diets -- LA's idea deserves serious consideration as we look for holistic solutions to a serious problem." The person-on-the-street comments that can be repeated in polite company are "leave us alone" and "don't they have bigger fish to fry?"

Now, the truth is we know most of our diets are lousy. We'd benefit from more veggies and fewer beef ribs. But that should be up to us, not some unit of government or advocates manipulating the power of government. The California trend is for the choices of a governor, a commissioner, or a council member to slap our hands and guide us to the "good choices." All for our own good, of course.

The more this spreads, the more it will mean one fewer body of freedoms in America.

It sets up a parody of a pleasant Sunday school song:

The government loves me, this I know

They pass rules that tell me so

Little ones to it belong

They are weak, but it is strong.

Yes, the government loves me,

Yes, the government loves me,

Yes, the government loves me,

The rules tell me so.