By Bobby Boone, AICP, LEED AP ND
When we hear the term “fast food,” we think McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, high calorie counts, and lack of nutrition. However, like it or not, fast food plays an important role in our food ecosystem. As planners, we must consider the impact of restricting fast-food establishments and recalibrate a perspective that demonizes or ostracizes these establishments, in favor of greater food access.
The negative perspective of fast food has been exacerbated by the rising popularity of healthconscious eating, with a strong emphasis on local, organic, and produce-centric food. As a result, fast-food restaurants have become scapegoats in policy debates and funding rounds, which continue to taint their reputation in the communities they routinely serve.
Why are planning practices so stringent when it comes to fast food? Zoning codes across the nation infringe on the possibility of neighborhoods to offer fast-food options, citing reasons like waste from disposable products and the noise of drive-thru windows. Yet communities accept restaurants as a by-right use.
In my experience, the nuisances presented by fast food are only slightly elevated from restaurant conditions. Sit-down restaurants, meanwhile, simply may not meet the needs of the community in respect to available food options, the time it takes to dine in, and the high cost.
During a recent study I conducted of Wards 7 and 8 of Washington, D.C., the percentage of annual household income spent on fast food had a direct correlation to commute time and the percentage of single-parent heads of household and a reverse correlation to the numbers of vehicles per household and educational attainment. Simply put: Fast food offers unrivaled convenience, affordability, and accessibility. Growing up in Atlanta as the only child of a single parent who worked over an hour away from home, my personal experience validates this.
In many communities, fast-food options fill the gap left by grocery and full-service restaurant tenants. Some neighborhoods and local governments are driven by the desire to have [insert well-known, sit-down restaurant or grocer here] in their backyards. However, as a retail market analyst, my experience has proven that fast-food retailers generally have a less stringent site selection process and can be supported by a smaller, more localized market. They will locate in neighborhoods where other national chains will not.
This not only helps fill the food-access gap in these communities, but it also presents an opportunity for fast-food offerings to prove the market. Once the fast-food operator is successful, other food offerings, including grocery and full-service restaurants, may follow. For example, Subway is routinely first in the market (especially in rural areas), due to the company’s low threshold for franchising, and is often followed by other retail and restaurant development.
Planners, it’s time to eat. According to the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, some options at fast-food restaurants are associated with lower cholesterol and sodium levels than at dine-in restaurants.
If the goal is to increase access to nutritious prepared food, there are avenues to incentivize and disincentivize food options in hopes of changing public health outcomes — other than limiting fast-food establishments. Local governments could subsidize costs of healthy foods to fast-food businesses through grant funding and federal assistance. Additionally, they could review zoning practices to ensure neighborhoods with low access to food are not further disadvantaged by restricted uses.
As we look forward to a comprehensive and equitable food access solution, we must ensure that citizens, regardless of socioeconomic status, are afforded a variety of food options that meet their needs. That includes fast food.
Bobby Boone is a senior research strategist at Streetsense. He specializes in retail district planning and design research, is a foodie, and likes to explore new cities across the world. Boone also serves as a board member of the National Capital Area Chapter of the American Planning Association.