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California

McDonald’s proposal divides healthy Loma Linda

Without a single liquor store, and legally smoke-free for nearly three decades, the tiny hillside town of Loma Linda brims with pride about its devotion to health and spiritual well-being.

So news that the first McDonald’s was coming to town, with its special-sauce-slathered Big Macs and 500-calorie sheaves of large fries, has triggered enough political reflux to put City Hall on the defensive.

A noisy group of doctors at the city’s landmark Loma Linda University Medical Center definitely isn’t lovin’ it. Already, there are whispers of election day payback and crafting a ballot measure to choke off a proliferation of fast-food joints.

“McDonald’s does not fit the Loma Linda brand of health and wellness,” said Dr. Wayne Dysinger, head of preventive medicine at the medical school. “Compare it to smoking laws: There’s no question that smoking is harmful to people’s health. Exposing people to fast food also is harmful to their health.”

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That healthful lifestyle is a core tenet of the Seventh-day Adventist faith, which is woven through the San Bernardino County town of 21,000, from the Adventist-run Loma Linda University Medical Center to a City Council governed exclusively by church members. There’s even a Loma Linda line of vegetarian food, produced by the same company that makes Morningstar Farms vegan burgers.

Along with being vegetarian, most Adventists shun tobacco, alcohol and fancy dress. They are quick to brag about being home to the healthiest, and longest-living, folks in the nation. National Geographic in 2005 identified Loma Linda as one of the world’s four “blue zones” — towns with greatest number of people living healthy lives into their 90s and past 100. The others were Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; and Nicoya, Costa Rica. “It’s a great point of pride that their commitment to health is paying off,” said Dysinger.

For Loma Linda residents, temptation already is just down the street. There are a half-dozen McDonald’s restaurants within five miles, all outside the city limits, and the town already has a Carl’s Jr. and Del Taco. But something about the Golden Arches popping up along Barton Avenue, within sight of the rolling hills that Adventist prophet Ellen G. White envisioned as a haven for the church, has proved too much to bear for many.

Dysinger is a member of the Healthy Loma Linda Coalition, composed mainly of preventive health professionals, which opposes the McDonald’s.

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The group is considering a ballot measure to require the city to ensure that the number of eating establishments that offer healthful food will always outnumber fast-food restaurants.

“Plus, every city councilman is an elected official,” he warned, referring to consequences at the ballot box.

The City Council so far has taken its chances, voting 3-2 to approve the McDonald’s as part of a larger development of a vacant lot a block from City Hall. The controversy has created an uncomfortable rift among Adventists. Dysinger and other parishioners call fast food an affront to the faith’s teachings of holistic wellness. Others call that an extreme view of the Adventist faith.

Loma Linda Mayor Rhodes Rigsby, an Adventist and director of the medical center’s home care services, expressed frustration about all the attention. His city’s political dust-up has been dissected on ABC’s “Nightline,” and he’s gotten calls from reporters in Germany.

“The press is casting it as health-conscious people versus greedy business people. It’s not. This is a disagreement about the role of government,” said Rigsby, a physician and lifelong vegetarian.

“My perspective as a conservative libertarian is that government’s role should be minimalized. We should keep people from harming one another, but government doesn’t have a strong need to keep people from harming themselves.”

Darold Retzer, executive pastor at the Loma Linda University Church of Seventh-day Adventists, said all the attention was “almost an embarrassment to the church.”

Within a block of the Clark’s Nutrition and Natural Foods market is a Stater Bros. market stocked with rib-eyes.

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The Adventist church’s holistic devotion to people’s health and spiritual well-being dominates daily life.

For 81 years, the post office didn’t deliver mail on Saturdays, the Adventist Sabbath, opting for Sunday instead. The postal service ended that policy last spring in a cost-cutting move, which faithful Adventists took as another slap at their traditions.

The Adventists’ emphasis on health, nutrition and exercise would be easy to miss for those living outside the city limits were it not for the medical center and university’s schools of health. They attract 600,000 patients a year. For many, the hospital’s vegetarian-only cafeteria is the first hint that life is different here.

Biblical creationism is preached in the town’s abundance of sanctuaries. Yet, Loma Linda Medical Center is best known for performing the world’s first infant cross-species heart transplant. “Baby Fae” was given the heart of a baboon in 1984.

“It goes back to the 1800s. Health always has been an important part to our wholeness,” said Retzer. “It really ties into how a person is spiritually.”

Loma Linda for decades has been a magnet for modern-day Juan Ponce de Leons, health researchers intrigued by the Adventist fountain of youth. Adventist men live an average of seven years longer and Adventist women four years more than other Californians, according to a detailed health study of Adventists for 1974 through 1988. The study, the second phase of which is underway, also found that Adventists had lower rates of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and stroke.

“It shows that if we want people to have better diets and physical activity ... then we have to be able to be in an environment that will promote those kinds of choices,” said Dr. Karen Jaceldo-Siegla, nutrition professor and senior investigator with the university’s Adventist Health Study. “We’re talking about walkability of a community. Having more stores and restaurants that can offer some health choices.”

At the Carl’s Jr. across the street from City Hall, nursing student Ruth Santos, an Adventist from Redlands, was munching on an enchilada and rice and beans. She said she likes the convenience of having fast food nearby but agrees that everyone would be better off with fewer temptations. She opposes the new McDonald’s.

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“We can’t tell people what to eat, but we should do what we can to promote healthy food and being healthy,” said Santos. “Who doesn’t want to be healthy and to live a long life?”

McDonald’s officials showed no sign of relenting. The new restaurant, company representatives said, will provide the city with a “contemporary dining experience and help fuel economic growth.” John Lueken, a regional director for McDonald’s in Southern California, defended the fast-food chain’s healthful menu options.

“We have been working hard over the past several years to ensure we have options on our menu to meet a variety of dietary needs,” Lueken said in a statement. “For example, our line of premium salads can be ordered without meat. We also have other offerings, including apple slices, oatmeal and fruit and yogurt parfaits as well as a variety of portion sizes.”

The notion drew a scoff from Dr. Sylvie Wellhausen, a professor at the university’s school of preventive medicine and member of the Healthy Loma Linda Coalition.

“Trying to say there’s a healthy menu at McDonald’s is like putting 5 milligrams of Vitamin C in a cigarette,” Wellhausen said.

“Our issue is not a faith issue,” said Wellhausen, who is not a member of the Adventist church. “Our issue is childhood obesity. I have patients who are 10 years old with a fatty liver.... I’m tired of seeing that. The elephant in the room is what we’re eating.”

phil.willon@latimes.com


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