Government attempts to make certain restaurant sites off-limits in the name of fighting obesity go awry in, of all places, the vegetarian-majority town of Loma Linda, CA.
Think it’s dangerous that local governments try to ban quick-service restaurants—or, by extension, any other type of restaurant—because officials deem their food unhealthy? Take heart. With the capitulation by the city council of Loma Linda, CA, a town thought to be the most health-conscious in America, the notion of legislating healthful dining may be dead.
You’d think Loma Linda, a city of 23,000 located just east of Los Angeles, would be the last place McDonald’s would want to open a unit. More than half the townspeople are members of the Seventh-day Adventist church, a faith whose belief in the righteousness of vegetarian diets stretches back to the 1860s. The city is also home to Loma Linda University, a church-affiliated healthcare university, and its associated medical center. If you’re looking for a place that practices what it preaches on the nutritional front, Loma Linda—where residents collectively enjoy one of the longest average life spans in the world—is it.
What it isn’t is a place where a burger-and-fries operation like McDonald’s can convince people it’s a healthful place to eat merely because it also offers salads and smoothies on its menu. Even so, the Loma Linda city council approved the chain’s request for the town’s first McDonald’s at a meeting last December.
Residents weren’t happy. Irate citizens and equally irate medical professionals showed up to vigorously protest the council’s action. ABC News described the scene as being as if “a nuclear waste dump, and not a fast food chain, was coming to town.”
In the end, the need for commercial vitality trumped nutritional concerns. “I don’t think it’s the government’s responsibility, personally, to legislate vegetarianism,” Loma Linda Mayor Rhodes Rigsby, a Seventh-day Adventist who is also a physician, told ABC. “If everyone became a vegetarian they would probably have a healthier life, but it has to be their choice.
“I would hate to go to a town where vegetables are outlawed because the majority are meat and potato carnivores,” Rigsby added. “That doesn’t make sense either. I think people should have options.”
Let’s hope his reasoning spreads far and wide. Loma Linda isn’t all that far away from South Los Angeles. Last December, the Los Angeles City Council passed (unanimously) new regulations whose carefully worded language precludes the opening of new fast food restaurants in South L.A.
City Councilwoman Jan Perry, who represents a large swath of South Los Angeles, helped push this measure through. She was also the force behind a moratorium on new fast food operations that went into effect in 2007. At the time, the idea was that the moratorium would give the city time come up with a permanent solution. That solution turned out to be much the same as the moratorium—no new fast food restaurants allowed.
Los Angeles joins a few other cities in banning fast food restaurants, although those bans were put in place under the guise of cityscape aesthetics or small business preservation. This new ban is a pure play on legislating public health.
The question for other restaurant operators is this: What happens if a legislative body decides that the type of food you serve constitutes the same detriment to public health as fast food?
Let’s hope the common-sense stance taken on this issue by Loma Linda prevails. This town is arguably more sensitive to, and more conservative about, health-related food issues than anywhere else in the country. If fast food bans can’t pass the litmus test here, they seem doomed to failure elsewhere in the country.