UPDATE: Not So Fast

Boise Councilman curbs proposal to limit fast food near Boise schools


UPDATE: April 10, 2015

After hearing considerable feedback for constituents and colleagues, Boise City Councilman TJ Thomson has decided to amend his "Health Initiatives 2.0" and drop the proposal to limit fast food restaurants around Boise schools that have open campuses—primarily high schools.

Thomson made his announcement on his Facebook page Friday, April 10, writing, "I will not be pursuing any limitation on fast food restaurants surrounding Boise high schools as part of my 'Healthy Initiatives 2.0'. The work I am performing is not meant to be symbolic; but rather, it is meant to be effective in benefiting children’s health."

Thomson wrote that he had obtained new information that led him to conclude, "I do not believe that limiting new fast food restaurants around high schools will help to achieve my ultimate goal of reducing childhood obesity rates within the city."

Meanwhile, Thomson said he was moving forward with his proposal to "improve healthy options at city run establishments, integrate positive messages for kids on city bus benches within school zones, improve access for low-income families to fresh, local fruits & vegetables at mobile farmers markets, and integrate healthy decision-making into new, city-initiated projects, such as libraries and fire stations."

Thomson said he also wants to update Blueprint Boise to reflect "our commitment to healthy children."

ORIGINAL STORY: April 8, 2015

Step outside the front door of Boise's Timberline High School, and it doesn't take long to spot the Dairy Queen across Boise Avenue. Turn to the northeast, and there's a McDonald's. Both serve food fast enough for Timberline students to be on time for their next class.

"Actually there are four fast-food restaurants within 1,000 feet of Timberline," said Boise City Councilman TJ Thomson. Along with Dairy Queen and McDonald's, there's a Blimpie sandwich shop on South Apple Street and Starbucks on Boise Avenue.

According to the two-term Boise lawmaker, it's a problem—the restaurants' proximity to a school literally feeds a growing problem: childhood obesity.

"It's the biggest health epidemic of our lifetime," Thomson said.

The 2012 Idaho Department of Health and Welfare report, Behavioral Risk Factors, reveals nearly 53 percent of Idaho adults are overweight or obese, and more than 25 percent of Idaho students are considered to be overweight or obese—it's nearly 33 percent by the 12th grade.

Based on those numbers, Thomson is proposing a big change to city policy, barring purveyors of what he calls "unhealthy foods" from operating within 1,000 feet of a school. Additionally, Thomson wants to create a 1,000-foot marketing-free zone around schools, targeting ads for fast food or tobacco on billboards and bus-stop benches. Even further, Thomson wants a healthy food and beverage policy for city-owned property and would like the city to subsidize purchases of fruits and vegetables at mobile farmers markets scheduled to visit parks this summer in some of the Boise's low-income neighborhoods.

"We're not just throwing out initiatives and seeing if they'll stick. Otherwise, I could have brought more than 50 initiatives. That's not what this is about." he added, stressing, "We can impact what's going on around our schools."

The proposals, which were unveiled during a Boise City Council strategic planning session April 2, are the second phase of "Healthy Boise Initiatives" following Thomson's successful push in fall 2014 to institute new city guidelines for licensed day care facilities including more daily physical activity, healthier menus and improved child-to-worker ratios (BW, News, "This is My Baby Now," Sept. 3, 2014).

Multiple studies support Thomson's intentions. A March 2009 report in the American Journal of Public Health points to the link between adolescent obesity and the proximity of fast food restaurants to schools. The analysis found students with fast food restaurants within a half-mile of their schools consumed fewer servings of fruits and vegetables, consumed more servings of soda and were more likely to be overweight or obese than were youths whose schools were not near fast food restaurants.

"And for our purposes, we're talking about 1,000 feet from a school; that's about three blocks," said Thomson. "I know because that's how far I walked to the Taco Bandito when I was going to school in Idaho Falls."

However, one person's fast food may be another's daily bread, so Thomson's proposed definition of fast food restaurants should draw some scrutiny. In his initial draft, Thomson states a fast food restaurant would be "a restaurant where food and beverages are: (1) prepared in advance of customer orders or are able to be quickly prepared for consumption on or off the premises; (2) ordered and served over counters or at drive-through windows; and (3) paid for before being consumed"

"Wherever we go with this, we need to do some serious work on the definition," said Boise City Council President Maryanne Jordan.

Thomson had an immediate response.

"Ninety-nine percent of the restaurants near schools are going to be fast food," he said.

Councilwoman Elaine Clegg said something else comes to mind, especially when it comes to high-school students and their lunch hour.

"When I was in high school, we would hop in a car and drive to Arctic Circle," Clegg said. "We might be encouraging more students to get in a car and drive fast, just to get to a fast food restaurant and back to school in time for their next class."

Thomson responded, "I don't see any evidence that more people are going to hop in a car. Studies show people are probably going to walk 1,000 feet."

For the record, Thomson considers restaurants such as Blimpie and Subway and coffee shops like Starbucks as fast food sellers. While he's not proposing they be forced out of the 1,000 foot zones, he does want city officials to consider any new such businesses to be inappropriate close to schools.

"Subway is as healthy an alternative as many others," said Clegg. "You're also possibly talking about coffee shops. I'd like to work on ways to address some of this."

Regarding Thomson's proposal to prohibit soda, junk food and tobacco advertising on bus benches and billboards, he said "I'm not suggesting that we take down any of the existing signs, but kids under the age of 12 don't know that they're being targeted."

There are an estimated 22 benches and 11 billboards within 1,000 feet of Boise schools.

Many of Thomson's fellow Council members said they like the idea of taking a closer look at advertising around city schools, but his "healthy kid zones" around schools will require a lot more dialogue.

"This is quite complex," Thomson said. "But we can choose to have an impact."