Politics & Government

Mecklenburg health director: Consider keeping fast-food restaurants away from high schools

Charlotte Catholic High School students use a crosswalk in front of the school that leads to a McDonald’s in the Carmel Commons Shopping Center, Wednesday afternoon, May 11, 2016. Mecklenburg’s health director has proposed a provocative way to improve the health of teenagers: Restricting fast-food restaurants from opening near high schools
Charlotte Catholic High School students use a crosswalk in front of the school that leads to a McDonald’s in the Carmel Commons Shopping Center, Wednesday afternoon, May 11, 2016. Mecklenburg’s health director has proposed a provocative way to improve the health of teenagers: Restricting fast-food restaurants from opening near high schools dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

Mecklenburg’s health director has proposed a provocative way to improve the health of teenagers: Restricting fast-food restaurants from opening near high schools.

Marcus Plescia’s idea, presented to Mecklenburg commissioners Tuesday, is part of an overall plan to improve the health of county residents. It would be coupled with an effort to bring more fresh food and grocery stores to low-income neighborhoods.

“We have done so much in schools where we try and have health options for kids,” Plescia said. “It can undermine that when it’s so easy when you can walk down the street for fast food.”

Any restriction on fast food would likely have to be done in partnership with the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg towns, which pass their own zoning regulations. The idea also faces some skepticism from commissioners, who worry the county might be overreaching by pushing fast-food establishments away from schools.

If the idea gains traction, it’s unclear how far fast food would be restricted. Detroit, for instance, has banned fast-food restaurants from opening within 500 feet of schools.

In Charlotte, fast-food restaurants are indeed a draw for high school students. At South Mecklenburg High, there is a steady stream of students walking north on Park Road to a McDonald’s at the Quail Corners shopping center a half-mile away.

Charlotte Catholic students have a McDonald’s directly across the street from their campus, and East Mecklenburg High students have a new McDonald’s on Monroe Road, a short walk from campus.

It’s unlikely an ordinance would affect existing restaurants.

Austin, Texas, considered a fast-food ban near schools in 2013, but the City Council voted against it. Los Angeles passed restrictions on fast-food restaurants opening in South Los Angeles in 2009 on the grounds that the area was inundated with too many similar, unhealthy restaurants.

Carrboro has a ban on drive-thru windows, a restriction that has the greatest impact on fast-food restaurants.

“It’s not like this is some new idea,” Plescia said. “We have seen a number of communities that have been aggressive around the public health obesity thing. It’s a combined approach of trying to create an environment where kids eat healthy foods.”

Some commissioners are skeptical.

“Wendy’s and McDonald’s are not morally equivalent to strip clubs,” said Republican Bill James. “The proposal effectively indicates they are. Fast-food businesses are legitimate businesses that offer a valid and valuable purpose.”

Democrat Pat Cotham said the county should focus on “more (health) education and fewer fines.”

“We are on the national stage for not being welcoming,” she said. “We don’t need to be fast-food or tobacco police.”

There are other parts to Plescia’s plan.

Plescia proposed offering incentives to encourage urban farming and having grocery stores in neighborhoods where there are none.

His plan would also require places for breast-feeding at events held on county property; that such events be tobacco-free; and encouraging transit and bike use.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs

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