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Zoning to Encourage Healthy Eating

Zoning is primarily a function of local government and typically is used as a device for planning.  Zoning may be used to restrict land use or incentivize development of the land in a particular way.  Zoning may define use (e.g. commercial vs. residential) or development (e.g. lot size, building height, etc.)  From a public health perspective, zoning can be instrumental to promote physical activity, increase safety and promote good nutrition.  Examples of local jurisdictions using zoning to promote healthy nutrition include: reducing the density of fast food restaurants in a particular area, restricting fast food restaurants within a specified distance from schools, incentivizing farming in urban areas, and incentivizing development of large grocery stores in urban areas.

Background Information

  • Institute of Medicine
    • The Institute of Medicine’s Committee on Childhood Obesity Prevention Actions for Local Governments was formed in 2008 to examine evidence on childhood obesity prevention efforts by local governments.  In 2009, the Committee published “Local Government Actions to Prevent Childhood Obesity” with recommendations for nine healthy eating strategies and six physical activity strategies.  The action steps include: adopting land use and zoning policies that prohibit fast food establishments within a specified distance of  school grounds and public playgrounds; implementing local ordinances to restrict mobile vending of calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods near schools and public playgrounds; implementing zoning designed to limit the density of fast food establishments and residential communities; and using zoning regulations to enable healthy food providers to locate in underserved neighborhoods.  A free copy of the report may be obtained from The National Academies Press online at the following website.
  • CARDIA Study
    • Fast food consumption is positively linked to weight gain and insulin resistance.  In a study published in the January, 2005 issue of The Lancet titled “Fast-food Habits, Weight Gain, and Insulin Resistance (The CARDIA Study): 15-Year Prospective Analysis” the authors examined 15-year changes in body weight associated with frequency of visits to fast food restaurants.  The summary of the paper is available at the following website and the paper is available in full text for a fee.
  • Fast Food Restaurant Density
    • A 2008 article titled “Obesity and the Availability of Fast Food: an Instrumental Variables Approach” suggests that geographic areas with a higher density of fast food restaurants experience a higher body mass index in both men and women.  Author Richard A. Dunn presented the findings at the International Health Economics Association World Congress and the paper is available in its full text version by visiting the following website and using the “One Click Download” link.
  • Food Deserts
    • PolicyLink is a national organization whose mission is advancing economic and social equity.  The Food Trust is a nonprofit organization working to ensure that everyone has access to affordable, nutritious food.  These organizations combined efforts to develop the policy document, “The Grocery Gap: Who Has Access to Healthy Food and Why it Matters.”  Findings from their work suggest that access to healthy and nutritious food is more limited in urban communities of color and rural areas, contributing to the prevalence of obesity.  Policy recommendations include creating local government incentives and zoning strategies to increase the number of grocery stores and supermarkets.  A link to the report may be found at:

Landmark Case Related to Zoning

  • VILLAGE of EUCLID, OHIO v. AMBLER REALTY CO., 272 U.S. 365 (1926),
    • This Supreme Court decision, established precedent that a local government is acting constitutionally when it establishes a zoning ordinance so long as the rationale for zoning has a rational public purpose related to public safety, health or welfare.  The creation of a zoning ordinance is not an arbitrary act and local governments have the authority to zone and enforce zoning ordinances as an extension of their police power.

Model Law and Policy Related to Zoning and Obesity

  • CDC
    • CDC’s  MMWR Recommendations and Reports, article titled “Recommended Community Strategies and Measurements to Prevent Obesity in the United States” (July 2009) identifies 24 environmental and policy level strategies to prevent obesity, including  zoning strategies communities can implement to reduce obesity.  For example, communities can use zoning to increase the number of full-service grocery stores, reduce the density of fast food restaurants, and provide incentives to farmer’s markets in underserved areas.
  • Centers for Law and the Public’s Health
    • The Centers for Law & the Public’s Health at Johns Hopkins and Georgetown Universities published a 2005 document titled, "The City Planners Guide to the Obesity Epidemic: Zoning and Fast Food."  The “Guide” is a relatively short document looking at the complex issue of zoning fast food restaurants as a tool to address obesity.  The “Guide” provides “Whereas” clauses that local legislators can use as a preamble, sample language enacted by various jurisdictions, and examples of cases brought by fast food restaurant owners to challenge various zoning regulations including a summary of case law in various jurisdictions.

Local Zoning Ordinances

  • Los Angeles, California
    • In July 2008, the Los Angeles City Council passed a one-year moratorium on opening or expanding fast food establishments in South Los Angeles.  The purpose of the moratorium was to address a perceived over-concentration of fast food restaurants in the South Los Angeles region and allow community planning to attract dining establishments, grocery stores and other options to enhance the quality of life for community stakeholders.
    • The RAND Corporation conducted an analysis of the South Los Angeles moratorium on fast food chains to determine its potential effectiveness.   Its 2009 report  suggests that although South Los Angeles residents have, on average, a significantly higher body mass index than residents in Los Angeles County overall, the density of fast food chain restaurants is lower in South Los Angeles than other parts of the county. 
    • Since the South Los Angeles moratorium, other studies have suggested that density of fast food restaurants in the South Los Angeles area is not as critical a factor as the lack of supermarkets available to the area combined with the high number of small corner grocery stores that stock less healthy food choices.  Strategies to attract large grocery stores with healthier food choices and educating the public about calories with restaurant menu labeling may be more effective to reduce obesity in the region. 
  • San Francisco, California
    • In one of the earlier actions to restrict fast food restaurants, in 1987 the San Francisco City Council used zoning to establish the San Francisco Geary Boulevard Fast Food Subdistrict that restricts any large fast food restaurant from the district.  There is no evidence to suggest the ordinance was enacted to reduce obesity, but it provides an early example of a community using zoning law to limit the density of fast food restaurants.  The ordinance can be found in Section 781.4 of the municipal code.

DISCLAIMER: Information available on this website that was not developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not necessarily represent any CDC policy, position, or endorsement of that information or of its sources. The information contained on this website is not legal advice; if you have questions about a specific law or its application you should consult your legal counsel.

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