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November 19 2013

Keep Austin...New York?

Julie Gunlock

I was sad to hear that Austin's getting a little less weird, and a little more New York-ish these days.

Plans are afoot in the famously foodie city of Austin, Texas to ban fast food restaurants. A local Austin television station reports that the city council is considering a resolution that would restrict the construction of fast-food food restaurants from locating "near areas that children frequent."

Aha!  It's for the children.  Oh...I get it.  In order to combat obesity, the city will ban fast food. Well, if that’s the goal, they better plan to ban more than McDonalds and Taco Bell. 

Clearly, those evil convenience stores with their aisles of candy and snack foods are dangerous to children. And you’ll have to outlaw the selling of food at gas stations. And we can all just say bye bye to those menacing vending machines outside of gas stations. Of course, sit-down restaurants will have to stop offering take-out service and grocery stores should be forced to get rid of all that hazardous ready-made food in the deli section (so much scary mayo!). Drug stores will have to do away with those candy displays near the cash register (but thank goodness those magazines showing near-anorexic women on the covers will still be allowed by the registers). Hell, strip malls should just be bulldozed...those things are just filled with frightening, fattening food producing establishments that lure children. Oh good lord...food courts...FOOD COURTS! Someone needs to get on food courts, fast. Have you seen those things? They sell buckets of fries and donuts and non-authentic chinese food and something called bourbon chicken that as far as I can tell, has no bourbon in it.   

Despite the Austin city council's claim that the ban will only restrict new construction, Baylen Linnekin, a lawyer specializing in food and agriculture law, warns in his Reason column that this resolution might impact already established restaurants. 

...the resolution would require the city manager "to gather and prepare data that identifies locations of fast food restaurants" in Austin. If the ordinance would only ban future restaurants, then why gather data on existing restaurants?

The resolution also doesn't distinguish between "existing" or "new" fast food restaurants. Neither word appears in the resolution.

An attachment to the resolution, model ordinance language developed by a public-health outfit called ChangeLab Solutions, Findings for Model Healthy Food Zone Ordinance, makes clear that an existing fast food restaurant could remain in place "unless the business changes or attempts to expand its use in some way (as defined by the ordinance)."

That'd be a killer. New awning? New paint job? New drive-thru window? Those are business changes or expansions that I suspect could spell the end for an existing fast food restaurant under an Austin ordinance.

Even worse is the subtitle of the ChangeLab Solutions model ordinance that Austin wants to adopt: Creating a Healthy Food Zone Around Schools by Regulating the Location of Fast Food Restaurants (and Mobile Food Vendors).

And mobile food vendors! This model ordinance could ensnare not just fast food restaurants in Austin but might also deal a severe blow to its beloved food truck community.

Unfortunately, foolish anti-obesity efforts like this are nothing new. Other cities have attempted similar bans (see my posts on those bans here and here).

Let's hope Austin's latest regulatory move doesn't spread across Texas. While Austin has a relatively low unemployment rate (at around 5.5 percent), other cities in Texas aren't so lucky. In fact, according to one analyst, forty counties in Texas have higher unemployment rates than the US total unemployment. 15 of those counties' unemployment rates are 10 percent or higher. And while the impossibly hip hipsters of Austin might not consider it cool to work in a fast food restaurant, they would be wise to know they'll come off as a bunch of conventional jerks if they back this effort to ban an industry that provide employment to a huge chunk of young people--the demographic which suffers the highest rates of unemployment in the U.S.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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