Cities can end ‘food deserts’ by ending ‘crime oases’


America’s cities have an obesity problem, and activists describe urban “food deserts” as a major factor. While grocery stores might be within driving distance, they rightly point out that many dense urban areas don’t have nearby grocery stores that sell quality food.

But why is that? With urban crime out of control, nobody wants to open a store where unprosecuted theft drives unsustainable losses and random acts of violence are bottomless liabilities. To end urban “food deserts,” cities must end crime oases keeping businesses away from residents most in need.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says an urban “food desert” is an urban tract where at least 500 people or a third of the population lives more than a half-mile from the nearest grocer. An “extreme” urban food desert is where people live more than a mile from the nearest food retailer that isn’t a convenience store. In 2019, 52 million, or 96% of Americans in food deserts were in urban areas, with 17 million in “extreme” urban food deserts.

This means most Americans in food deserts live in higher-density urban areas with enough people to support supermarkets. So what gives? San Francisco provides some clues.

In January 2024, when the Safeway supermarket in the Fillmore neighborhood announced its pending closure, San Francisco Mayor London Breed quickly agreed to provide police to keep the store open.

“Longtime Fillmore customers and residents have also expressed concerns with public safety in the area. As part of the site’s extension of services, Mayor Breed has directed the San Francisco Police Department to commit additional resources at this location,” said the mayor’s office, confirming crime likely drove the potential shutdown.

The Fillmore Safeway wasn’t the area’s first high-profile closure – Whole Foods closed its flagship San Francisco store in April 2023 due to “public safety” concerns, and In-N-Out announced it is closing its profitable Oakland location (its first closure ever) –  due to violence and crime against employees and customers.

According to Capital One, retailers lost $122 billion to retail theft in 2023, up 9% from 2022. 96% of theft is below $1,000, which means most theft falls under California’s $950 limit for misdemeanor theft.

With prosecutors overwhelmed by skyrocketing violent crime, these “nonviolent” misdemeanors aren’t a top priority, meaning most thefts – even if reported and the thief is found – won’t be prosecuted. So why spend precious time filling out theft reports and likely jack up insurance rates by demonstrating a higher risk profile if the bad guy won’t even be punished?

While reported shoplifting in San Francisco decreased 35% in the first half of 2024, real-world data and business leaders suggest less reporting, not less crime, drove the decline.

In 2021, one San Francisco Target started reporting all theft, doubling the total and producing half the entire county’s shoplifting reports. If just one store’s complete reporting doubled the whole county’s reported shoplifting, it’s likely most theft just isn’t being reported.

“We know that there is underreporting. Since Prop 47 was passed, murder, rape and robbery increased by more than 20% in the number of crimes. Same holds true for motor vehicle theft which is up 19.8% since the passage of Proposition 47. The only significant drop is burglary at 30%,” said Matt Ross, Communications Director for Californians Against Retail & Residential Theft. “So either California is doing an amazing job at stopping burglary when every other crime stat is on the increase, or there is underreporting.”

Anywhere a business thinks the cost of reporting crime outweighs the benefits is not somewhere a business would open, let alone a lower-margin, capital-intensive supermarket. Because supermarkets are so low-margin, theft will shut down a store. Imagine how many supermarket closures could have been averted by sufficient policing, and how many never opened in the first place?

San Francisco’s response to crime driving out supermarkets is free “food empowerment markets,” which do address the lack of access to fresh food, but not the underlying cause. San Francisco opened its first free “market” in June 2024 in the high-theft Bayview-Hunters Point community with $5.5 million in taxpayer funding: approved residents show an eligibility card, load up their carts, check out to keep track of inventory and leave without paying.

The program does have stringent participation requirements for participation, and is a monthly supplemental food program for referred families on food stamps already working with local service providers. Though the program fills a need and has little abuse potential, it does discourage for-profit grocers from opening. Even after the crime problem is solved, who would compete with free? While well-intentioned, this program demonstrates how those paying the greatest price for crime are the less fortunate, and that Band-Aid solutions will have negative long-term consequences.

So what is California doing? Ongoing legislation to require greater notice before grocery store or pharmacy shutdowns – six months in San Francisco, and 60 days statewide – are mocked as anti-business, but these proposals are misunderstood. While policing prevents theft-driven shutdowns, public outrage from announced closures provides cover for progressive jurisdictions to enhance policing when businesses need it, as Breed did.

However, these reactive measures only protect existing stores; permanently placing a few officers at a store is a costly, exclusionary way of keeping a politically valuable sliver of a high-crime area safe. Having enough officers to make the entire community safe, especially via labor-intensive but effective foot patrol and community policing supported by progressives, would provide the greatest benefits for all.

Another issue is that a few criminals are responsible for most theft. A third of all 2022 shoplifting in New York City involved just 327 criminals. While many officials are reluctant to pursue severe punishment for minor theft, removing the worst serial offenders from public life would produce substantial and immediate public-safety improvements.

Most important, the urban crime oases where food deserts typically have a large population that could support far more business activity. Fillmore, for example, has a population density equal to New York City’s and is right next to the affluent Pacific Heights and Nob Hill neighborhoods. This suggests the commercial inadequacy of food deserts has more to do with political will and poor choices, not lack of underlying business opportunity.

Kenneth Schrupp is the California reporter for The Center Square. His commentary and analysis have been published by Newsweek and RealClearPolitics.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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