Obesity concerns spur calls to limit new convenience stores in South L.A.

The proposed rules, an outgrowth of last year's city restrictions on new fast-food restaurants, are prompted by links found by researchers between snack foods and obesity in poor communities.

By Jerry Hirsch

October 12, 2009
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Links found by researchers between snack foods and obesity in poor communities are prompting new calls for more regulation of convenience stores in South Los Angeles.

The proposed new regulations under discussion are an outgrowth and expansion of last year's city restrictions on new fast-food restaurants in a 32-square-mile area of South Los Angeles. The area is home to about 500,000 residents, including those who live in West Adams, Baldwin Hills and Leimert Park.

Motivated by new data focusing on convenience stores, civic activists and a City Council member favor limiting the development of new convenience stores.

A study by Santa Monica think tank Rand Corp. published in the research journal Health Affairs last week said calories from snacks were a likely culprit of higher obesity rates in South Los Angeles. The authors also found that South Los Angeles had a dramatically higher concentration of the type of small convenience store that sells caloric snacks than other sections of the city.

Separately, researchers looking at the shopping patterns of schoolchildren in urban Philadelphia found that more than half the 800 students they surveyed reported that they shopped at a corner store at least once a day, five times a week. Almost a third visited a store both before and after school.

On average, the students spent about $1 and purchased 356 calories of snack foods and drinks each visit. Chips, candy, sugary beverages and gum were the most frequent purchases, according to a study published online today. It also will appear in the November edition of Pediatrics, a medical journal.

How to curb such purchases is a top priority for policymakers attempting to reduce the obesity rates in poor communities.

"We need to look at a moratorium on these convenience stores," said Lark Galloway-Gilliam, executive director of Community Health Councils Inc., a nonprofit health policy and education organization in South Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles City Council is set to consider a proposal that would limit the density of these small food stores in South Los Angeles, said Councilwoman Jan Perry, a proponent of regulations adopted last year establishing a moratorium on new openings of fast-food restaurants whose 9th District includes much of South Los Angeles.

The proposal, part of the developing Southeast Los Angeles Community Plan, would prohibit such small neighborhood markets from being closer than one-half mile from one another unless they sold fresh fruit and vegetables.

Although a half-mile separation may sound dense, it represents a restrictive requirement in her council district, which is only 14 square miles, Perry said. The proposal would only affect new development and would go to the City Council next year, she added.

"It's a carrot and a stick approach," Perry said.

Despite the studies that link snack calories with higher obesity rates in poor communities, regulating the location of stores might not be helpful, said Roland Sturm, who coauthored the Rand study with colleague Deborah Cohen.

The Rand study said that almost 26% of the residents of South Los Angeles are considered obese, according to the study. That compares with about 18% of the residents of Los Angeles County who live in higher-income neighborhoods.

"Clearly these stores are a source of excess calories, especially in children," Sturm said, "But people need access to food that is reachable."

His research found that residents of South Los Angeles are far more likely to walk or use public transportation to shop for food than Angelenos who live in other sections of the city, and that limits their choices.

"I would be hesitant to prohibit the development of these stores," Sturm said, because residents of the community don't have other easy-to-reach places to purchase food to be consumed at home.
Maybe poor people don't like baby spinach. I know I'd rather eat a candy bar than a plate of beans.

LA Times