It’s hard not to get depressed over the politics of food these days, given the massive power of the food industry to influence everything from the farm bill to childhood obesity. 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 exist 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 include: 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. This article originally appeared in Appetite for Profit.

  • Holly Bush

    I understand that fast food like McDonald’s has infiltrated our society and unduly influences families and especially children. But the solution is pretty simple. Don’t eat there. And don’t take your kids to eat there. When my kids were little we went to McDonald’s once in a great while or if we were traveling but certainly not enough to change or shape eating habits. So if you don’t think McDonald’s is a good choice for your family don’t spend your money there.

  • crs

    Nobody wants an ugly franchise in their backyard,but it’s not as if McDonalds is the portal to Hell. Instead of demonizing a business which admittedly profits by selling unhealthy food but does provide jobs, why not go with with individual responsibility and self-control. Nobody is forcing people to eat Big Macs. I don’t advocate witholding birth control information from teenagers and telling them to use abstinence, but surely our nation has enough moral fiber to just walk by McDonalds? And to tell the kids – we’re not having McNuggets today, maybe next week?

  • Didi Paano

    I don’t mind Subway in my neighborhood because they DO offer healty alternatives to McDonald’s, but, like Holly’s comment above, I agree…you don’t have to go to McDonald’s! When I do go to a fast food restaurant, I try my best to eat a healthy meal; i.e., Carl’s Jr. and their turkey burgers (without the sauce) works for me on occasion. There are some fast food restaurants who are TRYING to offer more healthful choices, but moderation is the key to the whole system. When was growing up in the 50’s, we didn’t have fast food restaurants….and we didn’t have the obesity problem we have now….so, you have to admit, fast food restaurants ARE a major cause and need to be monitored if we want to fight obesity in our children. A hamburger occasionally won’t kill them, but not several times a week!!!

  • Darren Proust

    These prior comments strike me as very knee jerk (and even ignorant of the report’s content). I just read through the report this post references and intend to share it with my city council. It offers valuable case studies on policies that may well help turn the tide on today’s epidemic of diet-related disease. Given the challenges we face, I’d hope for more informed dialog in this space — greater openness to interventions that could benefit children’s health and make for a healthier food landscape at large. Thanks to Ms. Simon for her post.

  • Natasha

    It would be way, way smarter to ban those gauche farmers markets from your neighborhood. At least McDonalds employs people and pays income tax and keeps their place fairly tidy. Farmers markets just use us and suck the cash money out of a community without employing anyone. Plus those farmers market lots are like carnival grounds — empty eyesores 6 days a week and 25 weeks a year, strewn with litter and trashy empty booths the rest of the time. To say nothing of the traffic congestion on market day especially with those rusty old trucks and station wagons creeping around the ‘hood. Give me McDonalds over the 3rd world flavor of farmers markets any day. McDonalds isn’t harming anyone.

  • Michael Bulger

    Researchers have found that farmers’ markets increase the economic activity at neighboring businesses. The simple reason for this is that shoppers come to the community with the primary intention to shop at the farmers’ market, but end up spending money at businesses nearby the market.
    For reference:
    Cheryl Brown and Stacy Miller “The impacts of local markets: a review of research on farmers markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) American Journal of Agricultural Economics 90(5), 1296-1302 (2008). Accessed at
    Lev, L., L. Brewer, and G. Stephenson. 2003. Research brief: How do farmers markets affect neighboring businesses? Oregon small farms technical report number 16. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Extension Service.

  • Rachel Gary

    Anytime I read comments like the above “If it’s so bad for you, just don’t eat there!” I know that they are written by people who have not considered the plights of those in different economic/social classes. When a family of four, often led by a single parent, is struggling to make ends meet, has little time to prepare healthy meals and has no means of transportation, buying a $1 cheeseburger at the McDonalds a block a way is a far more attractive option than taking public transportation to a supermarket miles away and buying organic kale, taking it home and cooking it. By this I mean that, to many many people in this country, the idea of simply not eating the unhealthy but cheap and accesible food is not a viable option. Additionally, many of these people lack the proper nutrition education to begin with. They may know they aren’t eating the healthiest thing, but they know far less than most of us (and probably the commenters above, since they are able to read this article) about the real health dangers of consuming fast food and junk food.
    Fast food companies know this, and use it to their advantage, which is one reason that fast food restaurants are so prevalent in low-income neighborhoods. Before judging the choices of others, perhaps try to understand their situation, and realize that corporations support and encourage the often unavoidable unhealthy behaviors.

  • Martina Bernstein

    To those who think the answer to the plight of fast food joints is simply not to go there, did you ever consider that you ARE supporting the industry even if you don’t eat there because the meat and poultry industry is heavily subsidized? There is a reason those meals are so cheap: your tax dollars at work. The idea that McDonalds’ “isn’t harming anyone” is also belied by the health insurance premiums that go up for everybody (including those who don’t eat greasy hamburgers and pink slime) because of diseases caused by poor dietary choices of so many Americans. Just look at the obesity and heart disease statistics, and you can’t tell me that having a McDonalds on every corner is a good thing.

  • Thanks for providing a great article with concrete ideas of things that others are already doing at a societal and policy level to help curb fast-food consumption in kids. Anyone who says ‘if you don’t like it, just don’t eat there’ is clearly ignorant of many of the bigger issues at hand (and let me be clear here, I’m not calling anyone ignorant, I’m just saying that there is a lack of knowledge or awareness that can be easily remedied). Many of these issues seem to be covered in the policy guide and are well worth a deeper read and further reflection.
    The examples you’ve shared of policy already in existence are inspiring, and give me ideas about what can happen here in my own back yard too.

  • Susan

    Thanks for the article. It’s astonishing to me how many millions of dollars are made each year from the poisoning of our children. I choose real food. I wouldn’t feed McDonalds, KFC, Lunchables, etc. to a stray dog, and that’s the truth.

  • Pamela

    This article is quite the tragicomic farce. Authored by the self-same propagandist shill who wrote the executive summary of the featured and celebrated “guide”, there is (of course) no disclosure. Not to mention how far back we must reach for “success stories”; back to 2008 and 2004!
    These loopy activists need to speed up their gray matter if they intend ever to successfully slow down fast food. What a bunch of hapless hand-wringers.

  • annie mccann

    “Healthy zoning” regulations wouldn’t ban restaurants so much as they would make it possible for people to get regular exercise walking around the neighborhood without getting run down by a car or raped or mugged. Now that would be a contribution to a healthy zoned environment.

  • Pamela, I guess you missed this in the second paragraph: “Full disclosure: I am a consultant for Corporate Accountability.”

  • Why not just tax unhealthy people? It makes much more sense than trying to ban everything we think may make them unhealthy but, in truth, may not.

  • melissa

    Great article. The arguments along the lines of ” if you don’t like it, don’t eat there” assume the privileges (amongst others) of access to, knowledge of, and the time and resources to prepare affordable and nutritious alternative sources of food close by.
    The “it’s an individual choice” argument also ignores the reality that low income neighborhoods have been strategically and systemically targeted, by corporations selling highly processed foods known to be damaging to our health, through multiple strategies including ads and aggressive placement of franchised locations where access to more healthy and equally as affordable fresh foods are not present.
    Schools are particular “neighborhoods” of concern, as kids (especially kids from low-income families) are somewhat “captive customers”, and must eat whatever is given to them in school lunches (yet another issue of systemic practices-who gets lucrative school lunch contracts, and so on).
    If you “know better” good for you; if you “can afford better”, “know where to get better”, or best of all, “even know better than to feed feed it to my dog” (how fortunate those well fed dogs must be) also good for you-not everyone has those choices, or the resources to exercise them. Share your knowledge and your access to healthy, affordable foods with those that don’t have it!

  • Pamela, I guess you missed this in the second paragraph: “Full disclosure: I am a consultant for Corporate Accountability.”

  • Ted

    Peter has a point but we should also tax habitual scare mongers and agenda-driven hate mongers. We could never heap onto them enough of the regulations, restrictions, bans, frivolous litigation, fees, penalties, taxes, verbal abuse, scorn and bigoted hatred they relentlessly seek to heap onto us.

  • Sophie

    Somebody here lectures us that poor people, instead of enjoying a $1 cheeseburger, should get on a bus and go get some organic kale. What is it about these foodie fools that places them so out of touch with reality? A cheeseburger once in a while won’t kill you. Far from it, it’s good for you, it’s good food. How much real nutrition in $1 worth of organic kale? Cripes, it’s mostly water! And just how much organic kale (or organic anything) can you buy with $1? Practically nothing! To say nothing of the bus fare (dang, there goes our dollar right there — guess we’ll just ride on over and gaze longingly at the lovely organic kale without being able to buy any — that certainly will trim our waistline, anyway). Screw it, I’m going to buy myself a couple of cheeseburgers right now and I’m buying some McD’s gift certificates to hand out to the next 5 needy people I encounter. These poor people could use a cheeseburger a heck of a lot more than they can use some meddlesome foodie know-it-all wagging a finger in their face and cussing them out.

  • Tommie

    As “Guides” and handbooks go, I prefer something a bit more sensible and meaningful. Something that retains a firm grasp upon reality and basal intelligence…
    What’s with all the food panic around here? Will obsessing over fast food really resolve obesity? Really?

  • Dari Smith

    Ms. Simons, Thank you for the article and the great work that you do. I will read the report. We have an obesity epidemic and policy very favorable to corporations. These corporations have tons of money and very smart people working to increase profits for shareholders as they are legally mandated to do. They know the formula- refined foods that are addictive. They did it with cigarettes and alcohol and discovered the addictive properties of sugar and flour. They will fight tooth and nail to keep control. We need policy makers with back bones to do the right thing. Mayor Bloomberg is my hero.