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City Council rejects attempt to establish ‘Healthy Food Zones’

Friday, November 22, 2013 by Jimmy Maas

The City of Austin will not be establishing Healthy Food Zones any time soon. And, for now, the city won’t be looking into whether Austin even needs them.


A resolution sponsored mainly by Council Member Laura Morrison would have directed City Manager Marc Ott to gather data from the county and neighborhoods for the establishment of so-called Healthy Food Zones. The zones would limit the types of food establishments that could operate within a certain distance of schools or other designated areas.


A long parade of restaurant representatives and owners spoke against the resolution as part of a debate over how healthy food is defined. The commentary was enough to keep an already skeptical Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole and Council Members Bill Spelman and Chris Riley from approving it. It failed by a 4-3 vote. Council Members Mike Martinez, Kathie Tovo and Morrison voted for it.


A previous version of the resolution would have put convenience stores and fast food establishments in the cross hairs of zoning changes. The version that Council rejected was stripped of much of that language and basically called for a study of targeted areas in the city. The Council could have then used that information to establish Healthy Food Zones in the future if it chose to do so.


The discussion was contentious from the start. Leffingwell demanded a definition of healthy food from the first speaker. He then admonished the director and the medical director of Travis County Health and Human Services for going directly to the City Council and not involving the county commission.


Without technically being named in the final resolution, convenience stores, sit-down and fast food restaurant organizations went on the offensive.


Leffingwell fueled the fire by saying the convenience stores sell basically the same food you can get at a grocery store, only the grocery store will sell it to you in greater quantity, like a pound of lard or a big bag of sugar.


Comparisons were made at the meeting of fast food restaurants and convenience stores being zoned like strip clubs and liquor stores.  Skeeter Miller, owner of the County Line and president of the Greater Austin Restaurant Association called the resolution unreasonable.


Restaurant owners pointed to studies that pin the increased obesity rate on inactivity, not their food.


“The prevailing theory now is that inactivity and a lack of exercise are the real culprit,” Darryl Wittle, owner of Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and former board member of the Texas Restaurant Association, told the council. “QSRs (quick service restaurants) have made great strides in creating a healthier product mix, having added salads fresh fruits and yogurts.”


To which, the mayor responded, “So, maybe it’s the case, based on that study, we’d be better off banning smart phones for kids.”


One advocate, who identified himself as a Dove Springs resident, spoke in support of the resolution citing his neighborhood’s obesity rate among children.  He said this would force better choices into areas like his.


Activist Kurt Cadena-Mitchell, also a supporter, argued it’s a matter of land use. “If we invest in sidewalks and more speed bumps and bike lanes, we’ll have more cyclists and have more people walking.”

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