LOS ANGELES — From her perch on a windowsill near a corner in South Los Angeles, Natasha Jackson could survey eight fast-food restaurants, and a sign promising one more to come.
“It would be good to have a health food restaurant here,” said Ms. Jackson, 20. “But to tell you the truth, I would probably just go to McDonald’s, because that’s what I know.”
Los Angeles lawmakers are hoping they can legislate away the eating habits of Ms. Jackson and thousands of her neighbors. In July the City Council passed a one-year moratorium, now signed into law and effective as of last week, on any new fast-food restaurants in a 32-square-mile area south of Interstate 10, and the city is offering prospective owners of new grocery stores and non-fast-food restaurants large financial incentives to set up shop in the area.
The impetus for the ban was the area’s large number of fast-food chains, which account for 45 percent of all its restaurants, along with high rates of obesity and related health problems and small numbers of fresh-food outlets, said Councilwoman Jan Perry, the bill’s author.
“Talking to people over the last 10 to 15 years, they have consistently demanded more grocery stores and sit-down restaurants,” Ms. Perry said. “We have precious little land left to develop in the district.”
The moratorium was opposed by the California Restaurant Association and is being closely monitored by fast-food chains.
“There is always that concern that it could expand,” said Brian Luscomb, a spokesman for Jack in the Box, which has nine restaurants in South Los Angeles.
South Los Angeles, the city’s poorest section, sits at the crossroad of a number of policy trends in the state and, increasingly, in the nation, in which governments seek to limit the availability of foods deemed by the medical community to cause harm. Last month California became the first state to ban trans fats in all restaurants and bakeries, following similar legislation in New York and other cities.
Further, as some consumers push for more local ingredients, community organizers have tried to bring farmers’ markets and other alternatives to South Los Angeles, which still lacks many basic grocery stores. Last year the city began offering tax credits, loans and energy discounts to new groceries, sit-down restaurants and fresh-food purveyors that settled in the neighborhood, and the ban on new fast-food restaurants, derided by some as misguided and an ineffective way to alter consumers’ behavior, is believed to be the first of its kind in the country. (Some other cities have introduced bans on fast-food restaurants, but for aesthetic rather than health reasons.)
Over the past five years, three farmers’ markets have opened in South Los Angeles, and while they do not enjoy the patronage of other urban markets, “we think they are a great asset in that community,” said Pompea Smith, chief executive of Sustainable Economic Enterprises of Los Angeles, a nonprofit community development corporation.
Greg Good, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, which is pressuring national grocery chains to bolster their presence in South Los Angeles, said: “South L.A. is a food desert of massive proportions. You have a city completely divided, not only in the ways so familiar to folks but in terms of actual food access. In the face of that, a general call to action is taking place.”
It may be that what many of the roughly 550,000 people in the area covered by the moratorium desire is not less of what they have, but more of what they do not.
“I don’t think such a ban has any point,” said Caroline Adeuole, who had just stepped off a bus with a shopping cart filled with fruits and vegetables procured on the city’s west side. “No matter where they put those restaurants, if people want that, they will drive to get it.”
Taking a container of blueberries from her cart, Ms. Adeuole added, “Not many people around here are ready to pay $5 for berries.”
Others denounce the ban as overreaching.
“I think it’s pretty ridiculous,” said Joe R. Hicks, vice president of Community Advocates Inc., based in downtown Los Angeles. “Limiting people’s food options is not really the way to go. Nor is it the role of government to tell people what they should or should not be eating. French fries aren’t contraband.”
During a drive around a nine-and-half-mile stretch of the zone where the moratorium began last week, a reporter noted 32 fast-food chain restaurants, nine mom-and-pop-style burger outlets and just eight other restaurants, most of them either Chinese or other ethnic places like a family-style Salvadoran restaurant. It is the hope for alternatives that has led some people here to support the ban.
“It’s either chicken or burgers around here,” said Ernest Herbert, who is 40 and has high cholesterol. “If I want something else to eat, I have to go all the way to Wilshire. I am very supportive of this.”