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Why Is There So Much Fast Food in Poor Urban Areas?

A new book offers an answer, implicating government programs originally designed to encourage entrepreneurship and development.
(Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

(Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Last January, the New York Times’ restaurant critic Pete Wells angered the Internet. Reviewing Locol, the ambitious attempt in Oakland and Los Angeles to bring genuinely healthy fast food to neglected inner-city neighborhoods, Wells went negative. Daniel Patterson’s and Roy Choi’s brave foray into culinary justice, he sneered, “almost has to fall short somewhere.” And, sure enough, Wells wrote, it did. “The big problem,” he explained, “would be the food.”

With a few strokes of his sword, Wells eviscerated not only the fare but its philosophy. Choi’s refreshingly enlightened opinion that those who establish high-end restaurants (Patterson is behind the upscale Coi) should “build a restaurant in the ‘hood,’ too” withered under Wells’ curmudgeonly conclusion that, no matter how virtuous one’s intention, “the most nutritious burger on earth won’t help you if you don’t want to eat it.”

Advocates of food justice went bonkers. As is done, they took to Twitter, where Wells became “a dated critic with a damaged palate,” a scoundrel who used “elitist words” to “strike down a movement.” Here it was: Yet another “privileged writer hating on someone trying to make a change.” At least one reader went so far as to bitterly divorce the Times: “You took a shot @weloco and now I’m out.”

A 1968 SBA conference on the theme of African-American business ownership explicitly highlighted, in its words, “franchising as a possible solution to the ghetto entrepreneur’s difficulties.”

Of course, the Locol dust up can be argued up or down. Wells’ job, as it’s narrowly defined, is to evaluate the taste and presentation of food. That’s exactly what he did. Locol, for its part, is out on a virtuous limb. As such, perhaps it warrants the special consideration that it decidedly did not get. But what the debate over the Wells-Locol tete-a-tete lacks — and what is so often missing in our food discourse in general — is the necessary historical context.

In this case, to evaluate the fairness of Wells’ critique — to assess whether he perhaps should have let social concerns tip the scale of conventional culinary judgment — we should know (for starters) how inner-city neighborhoods, including Watts, became such culinary waste lands in the first place. That is, we need to understand why the hood is so badly choked with the franchises of McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Popeyes. What is Locol standing up to when it tries to bring turkey “burgs,” quinoa, and tofu to urban intersections of Big Macs and Whoppers?

In light of these questions, I reached out to Chin Jou, lecturer in American history at the University of Sydney. Her fascinating book Supersizing Urban America: How Inner Cities Got Fast Food With Government Help, published in March, provides the ideal context for assessing Wells’ panning of Locol, in addition to enabling us to evaluate the prospect of bringing healthy food to neighborhoods that don’t have access to it.

Appropriately enough, the Watts neighborhood plays a significant role in Jou’s narrative. In 1965, in the wake of the notorious Watts Riots, President Lyndon Johnson sent officials from the Small Business Administration to California, instructing them to “eliminate the deep seated-causes of riots.” The SBA pursued this goal, in large part, by fostering minority entrepreneurship in urban areas as a basis for improved local employment and morale.

Unfortunately, SBA officials, joined by members of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, decided that a particularly promising kind of entrepreneurship for the urban underclass was in fast food. A 1968 SBA conference on the theme of African-American business ownership explicitly highlighted, in its words, “franchising as a possible solution to the ghetto entrepreneur’s difficulties.”

Supersizing Urban America: How Inner Cities Got Fast Food With Government Help. (Photo: The University of Chicago Press)

Supersizing Urban America: How Inner Cities Got Fast Food With Government Help. (Photo: The University of Chicago Press)

In case there was any confusion about what kind of franchising was envisioned, the SBA invited Dunkin’ Donuts to co-sponsor the event. Two years later, Jou says, “Dunkin’ Donuts received SBA loan guarantees worth $414,700 (in 1970 dollars) to open 11 new franchises.” And thus a trend — corporations soliciting grants from the government to initiate black-owned inner-city fast food franchises — was now underway.

Measures enacted by the Nixon administration ensured that the ties established by the SBA among inner cities, African Americans, and fast food restaurants would quickly strengthen and expand. The Office of Minority Business Enterprise, established in 1969, aimed to establish 10,000 new minority franchises over two years. Technically, according to Jou, “this program was open to different sectors employing the franchise model.” But again, in reality, “African-American franchises were more likely to be in fast food than any other franchising sector.”

Fast food entrepreneurs quickly emerged to take advantage of the government’s largesse. The most notable player, the former NFL star Brady Keys, received $9 million from federally funded minority enterprise programs to start 50 fast food franchises in the early 1970s — namely Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets — in Cleveland, Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C.

Understandably, with the proliferation of fast food franchises in poor inner-city neighborhoods, African-American consumers became interested in both patronizing these establishments and keeping them black-owned and -operated. “There have been,” Jou says, “boycotts of white-owned McDonald’s franchises in urban African-American neighborhoods.” She notes how “KFC and McDonald’s outlets in African-American communities gestured toward Afrocentrism” by, for example, “displaying artwork by African-American artists featuring black subjects, or providing employer uniforms incorporating elements of Kente-inspired designs.”

Then came Madison Avenue to naturalize, once and for all, the association between African Americans and inner-city fast food. With more and more franchises owned by African Americans, and with African Americans increasingly consuming fast food, executives, beginning with those at McDonald’s in 1971, started hiring marketing firms to target black communities. By 1990, according to Jou, “McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s dedicated one-fifth of their radio and television advertising budget to African-American audiences.” In 2012, a Yale University study found that the fast food industry “disproportionately targeted African-American and Latino children in its advertising.”

The problem with this narrative is not that the federal government once founded programs to assist African-American entrepreneurs working in the inner city. That’s a good thing. Instead, the problem is that, with direct corporate involvement, the government channeled that support into an industry — fast food — that has arguably transformed the African-American diet from a relatively healthy one to one that’s far too reliant on junk food that causes a range of problems — most notably obesity and diabetes.

“Dietary surveys do suggest,” Jou says, “that African-American diets in the pre-fast food era may have been healthier than in more recent years, and that their earlier diets were more nutritionally sound than those of white Americans with similar food budgets.” Referencing a 1996 dietary analysis, she adds, “starting in the 1960s, traditional African-American staples like greens, black-eyed peas, and sweet potatoes increasingly gave way to typical fast food fare.” The last remark Jou made in our exchange was the one that registered the deepest impression: “In 1965 — just a few years before the onslaught of fast food in inner cities — dietary surveys revealed that African Americans were twice as likely as whites to meet dietary recommendations for fat, fiber, fruits, and vegetables. By 1996, the opposite was true.”

All of which brings us back to Locol — and Wells’ nasty review of it. If its revolutionary rhetoric is to be believed — and the food Locol is now serving suggests that it should — Choi and Patterson want their idea to permanently change this sad state of culinary affairs for the poorest residents of our inner cities. They want to reverse the history that Jou so ably tells.

Jou’s critically important historical analysis of fast food does not necessarily mean that Wells was necessarily out of line for writing unfavorably about food that is trying mightily to enact social change. But neither does it mean that, because there might still be some work to do in the kitchen — or because it’s harder to make healthy ingredients taste as satisfying as cheap junk food — that socially conscious and historically informed consumers won’t patiently await a better “burg” from a place that understands you can’t have entrepreneurship if you don’t have health. Wells might consider the gale of history into which Locol leans. A good start for doing so would be to read Jou’s important book.