Huston: Commanding Neighborhood Groceries

January 5, 2016

by Tom Huston

I’ll bet you didn’t know that barely five percent of Indianapolis residents live within easy walking distance to a grocery store that sells fresh produce. Being familiar with the geography, demographics and zoning code of our capital city, I would have guessed as much. Where I would have gone wrong was in not suspecting that the walkability shortfall was a problem in need of a legislative solution.

There are, you see, all sorts of these “food deserts” scattered across the state, and Sen. Randy Head, R-Logansport, wants to do something about them. According to Lesley Weidenbener’s report in the Indianapolis Business Journal, “he’s proposed a grant program that provides funding for organizations or businesses that want to bring fresh food to underserved communities and neighborhoods. SB 15 would appropriate $1 million to the program and task the State Department of Health with overseeing it.”

What, you may ask, is a “food desert?” According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it is a low-income census tract where at least 33 percent of the tract’s population or a minimum of 500 people in the tract have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store. Low access is defined as more than 1 mile from a supermarket or large grocery store in urban areas and as more than 10 miles from a supermarket or large grocery store in rural areas.

The USDA’s Economic Research Service has identified more than 6,500 food desert tracts in the United States. According to USDA, “food desert tracts tend to have smaller populations, higher rates of abandoned or vacant homes, and residents who have lower levels of education, lower incomes, and higher unemployment.” In short, they tend to be neighborhoods in which large grocery chains do not find it profitable to do business.

Every high-minded Republican legislator wants to make his own contribution to tackling the problems of poverty whether by expanding the opportunity for the poor to buy lottery tickets or by subsidizing the latest scheme of social justice entrepreneurs looking to make a buck. Fortunately for Indiana taxpayers, these feel good gestures of bipartisan welfarism generally don’t survive the scrutiny of the frugal chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

In any event, Senator Head is well behind the curve. As part of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative to combat childhood obesity, the Departments of Treasury, Health and Human Services and Agriculture are already at work “to expand the availability of nutritious food through the establishment of healthy food retail outlets, including developing and equipping grocery stores, small retailers, corner stores and farmers markets to help revitalize neighborhoods that currently lack these options.”

The good people of Logansport at the recent municipal election turned the Republicans out of City Hall after a four-year running disaster. If this is the best thing Senator Head can come up with to justify his time in Indianapolis, the good folks of my hometown may wish to pursue the purge to its logical conclusion.

INDIANA STATE and local governments have bestowed on businesses (for the most part big and bigger) $7.65 billion in public subsidies, principally in the form of tax abatement.The information dates back to 1986, but the bulk of it is from the past five years. The next time your local government complains about the adverse impact on its budget of real property tax caps, ask about its record in doling out tax abatement and other subsidies to the favored few. The top 10 recipients of Hoosier largess:

General Motors: $708.8 million, 49 subsidies, dating to 2001.
Community Health Systems: $421.5 million, 137 subsidies, dating to 2003.
Michelin: $308.3 million, 19 subsidies, dating to 2003.
United Continental: $298 million, 1 subsidy, dating to 1991.
Eli Lilly: $214.5 million, 2 subsidies, dating to 1999.
Duke Energy: $204 million, 1 subsidy, dating to 2006.
Nestle: $200.8 million, 52 subsidies, dating to 2001.
Simon Property Group: $187 million, 1 subsidy, dating to 1988.
Honda $166 million, 4 subsidies, dating to 2006.
Mid Oaks Investments: $120.4 million, 20 subsidies, dating to 2003.

Tom Charles Huston is an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation.



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