The Outstater

June 5, 2021

“Every high civilization decays by forgetting obvious things.” — C.K. Chesterton

THE STAFF of the Indianapolis Star, reduced as it is, has found time to devote dozens of hours and thousands of words to the city’s food “deserts,” those areas unserved by commercial grocery stores. Star readers will learn little from the effort. The newspaper merely steers us to its foregone, unsupported conclusion: That a well-stocked, nearby grocery store is somewhere written into the Bill of Rights.

The editors have invented a new school of journalism to push the idea. It can be called the Resentment School, teaching young reporters how to collect emotive and envious notions from random people sincerely upset about a particular issue but ill informed as to what can be done about it.

Thus we hear the sad story of Sabae Martin who once could walk just 0.2 miles from her house on Capitol Avenue to the Seven-Eleven Supermarket, but now stands in an empty parking lot where the Standard Grocery once stood, across the street from the broken down building that housed her Seven-Eleven.

And we learn about food-access “inequity” and read headlines like, “’We’ve Been Neglected for Years” and “Indianapolis Battles Food Deserts with New Food Division.” 

That last refers to Mayor Joe Hogsett’s plan to supplant capitalism in the “abandoned” areas with a combination of good intentions, grants, government aid and old-fashioned pumped-up moral superiority.

So far, according to the Star, Hogsett has spent or budgeted $130,000 for a program providing rides to grocery stores, $220,525 for a smart phone application to connect residents to food, $195,000 in “food champion” grants to support residents who want to address food insecurity in their neighborhoods and $195,000 for a mobile grocery that offers fresh produce in different neighborhoods.

He may be just getting started. There is talk of treating groceries as the government has come to treat any politically desired commercial or real estate asset — baseball stadiums, convention centers, boutique hotels, etc. — by paying “investors” their profits up front for locating in the designated areas. 

The problem is that these quasi-capitalists (“rent seekers,” to use the economic term) have only secondary incentives to serve customers, maintain or improve facilities. Their allegiance is to political patrons on the 25th Floor.

In sum, the Star never tests its assumption that food deserts are caused by racism inherent in the capitalist system, that entrepreneurs, black or white, are passing up easy profits in a wide-open food market out of spite.

That tells you it is time to put down what has become a silly newspaper and review the obvious.

Proponents of the mayor’s programs define the food deserts in a way that shows them scattered throughout Marion County, as if population density plays no part, as if it is everybody’s problem (and responsibility). But make no mistake the political dollars are focused on a loyal Democrat constituency in the inner-city neighborhoods.

Fifty-three years ago we made it flat illegal to deny credit to particular neighborhoods on a discriminatory basis. If racism were the cause of neighborhood differences, that and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 should have taken care of it.

But as it turns out, there were other causes, all ignored, chief among them being the socially and sometimes politically protected malfeasance of residents in the prescribed areas. “One reason is that crime, shoplifting, vandalism and riots have raised the costs, both directly and by causing insurance rates and the costs of security to be higher,” says the economist Thomas Sowell.

In the midst of the food deserts campaign, comes a vote by the Indianapolis Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) declaring that the city is in a crisis of crime, violence and confidence.  

“When was the last time you heard the mayor talk about locking somebody up?” asked the FOP president. “We don’t talk about that anymore, but here is the deal: Our politicians are playing government, they are out here playing ‘West Wing’ or ‘House of Cards’ while our evildoers are playing for keeps.” 

Again, the Star sees no connection between crime and a decline in commerce. And yet there is the experience of San Francisco after passage of a woke referendum downgrading to a misdemeanor the theft of property less than $950.

Walgreens there says that thefts at its stores are now four times the chain’s national average. As a result it closed 17 stores. And neighboring CVS says that the city has become “one of the epicenters of organized retail crime” and that it has scaled back its shoplifting enforcement because of the danger to the security force.

“I’m new to San Francisco,” a journalist quipped shortly after moving to the city. “Is it optional to pay for things here?”

In Indiana, the owner of the last locally owned inner city grocery store in my city said that shoplifting and employee theft had made it unprofitable to do business there. This was before it became unfashionable to say such things out loud.

Unfashionable or not, it deserves mention in a newspaper presuming to explain why grocery stores have left the inner city. Is there no data in Indianapolis comparing shoplifting and theft in the various areas (keeping in mind that a typical grocery store operates on a 1 to 2 percent profit margin)? Star readers aren’t given a clue. How many grocers are willing to enter a market where they are guaranteed to lose money in perpetuity? The Star has no idea.

And for all of the expense, aspersion and opprobium, the yield promises to be zero. Sowell notes that the Department of Agriculture found no evidence of malnutrition among those in the lowest income brackets. Nor was there any significant difference in the intake of vitamins, minerals or other nutrients from one income level to another.

“Ironically, the one demonstrable nutritional difference between the poor and others is that low-income women tend to be overweight more often than others,” Sowell concludes. “That may not seem like much to make a political issue from, but politicians and the media have created hysteria over less.”

All of that said, those living in the inner city of Indianapolis are good and loyal customers with whom any well-run business can make a profit. That their reputation is sullied by the actions of an errant few is not the fault of those choosing grocery locations. It is the fault of community leadership, most especially at City Hall and at the Indianapolis Star where supposed root causes and excuses, not solutions, make the headlines.

We all know that we must be good neighbors if we want good neighborhoods, and we must be good customers If we want fully stocked, nearby grocery stores — and “good” in both cases implies respect for the property of others.

There is no mayoral largess big enough to make up for that. — tcl


Leave a Reply