- - Saturday, December 21, 2019

They’re closing the International Square Food Court on 18th and I streets Northwest at year end, and while it wasn’t exactly charming, I’m going to miss the place, as will a decent number of workers from nearby office buildings who regularly congregated there to eat with friends and coworkers. 

Its demise occurred mainly because the food trucks decimated its clientele. While as a card-carrying capitalist I’m all for market competition and applaud its ability to provide what customers desire, this battle seemed a bit unfair. Unlike restaurants, food trucks pay no rent — the city awards prime food truck spaces downtown via a lottery instead of establishing and charging a market price because, as I was once told by a city official, “we thought about doing that but decided not to.” Who can argue with that iron-tight logic?

The reality, of course, is that the politically active progressives enjoy the variety of cuisines that food trucks bring and would never deign to eat at a food court, with its unimaginative food and bland decor. Their demise — and the International Square is not the only one that’s struggling these days — is an unfortunate outcome of a new and innovative food environment hastened by an implicit government subsidy to its competitors.

The fact that food trucks do not pay rent gives them a substantial cost advantage over their brick-and-mortar competitors: I estimate that the city foregoes close to a million dollars a year that it would receive if it auctioned prime street parking spots to food trucks. For comparison, the city charges restaurants that put tables and chairs on the sidewalks in front of their business on a spot as big as a food truck about $7,000-$10,000 a year. 

Besides the fact that we effectively subsidize one group of restaurateurs at the expense of another, there’s another loss here because most people eating at International Square happen to be sharing a meal with someone else. Such regular social exchanges are valuable for a person’s mental health, we now know, and regular socializations can facilitate employment mobility and a greater sense of community as well — both of which can help improve someone’s lifetime earnings.

Food truck eaters are almost all taking it back to their office and eating at their desk, a practice which I have fulminated against elsewhere. The advantage of food courts is that they can accommodate a variety of cuisines and levels of sophistication and allow different social strata to congregate together, striking a small blow for class isolation. 

As a regular trencherman I want as many restaurants all across the price/quality hierarchy where we can eat where we buy our food. If there were any subsidization of restaurants in downtown D.C., and there should obviously not be any such thing, its goal should be first and foremost to encourage diners to eat food with other people. The food truck takeover most emphatically does not accomplish such a thing, and it amounts to a manifestation of what interest groups invariably do when they accrete power: namely, provide a benefit to their own cohort. 

Food should be consumed as part of a social exercise whenever possible, and we shouldn’t subsidize a business model that impedes this. The recent diminution of this practice may not be the proximate cause of societal decline, but it certainly isn’t helping things either. Let’s end the food truck subsidy before we lose another food court. 

• Ike Brannon is a senior fellow at the Jack Kemp Foundation

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