Dollar stores may help you stretch your budget, but they do little to provide nutritional food, which can contribute to growing health problems in poor and minority communities.
Now City Lab says there is a growing backlash against dollar stores in America.
Once considered a welcomed resource to minority and low-income communities, the number of these stores has exploded since 2001, with more than 10,000 new outlets opening. Today, there are more dollar stores than Walmart and McDonald's locations combined.
However, increasingly vocal critics contend that dollar stores are perpetuating several troubling societal problems largely because they tend to sell unhealthy packaged foods, but not fresh food, including fruits and vegetables.
Demographics and Food Deserts
As demographic trends for both urban and rural communities have changed over the years, retail store mix has also transformed, but not for the better.
“White flight” has resulted in traditional fresh grocers abandoning many urban areas and only to expand in the suburbs, thus creating inner city "food deserts," urban areas with limited or no access to good quality healthy, fresh foods especially fresh fruits and veggies.
At the same time, limited transportation and higher poverty rates in rural and urban communities alike often force consumers to purchase food at stores within their communities – and often times that means the local dollar store, which offers cheap, if not nutritious processed foods at low costs.
The DC Policy Center reported that “food deserts”affect millions of Americans, particularly in areas with high concentrations of low-income and minority residents, invoking socioeconomic and racial divides.
This is evident in places like Washington, D.C., a city with a long history of racial and economic divisions and disparities. City policymakers estimate that 11 percent of D.C.’s total area – mostly poor sections of the city, are technically food deserts. These are the folks who have few options, so they shop where they can buy cheap, readily available food.
But this only exacerbates the health conditions that heavily impact communities of color, including hypertension and diabetes. While dollar stores don’t create disease, their lack of fresh food options certainly contributes to unhealthy conditions for those who have no other option.
Rethinking the Approach
“What if we went to these neighborhoods and didn’t assume that poor people or communities of color do not want to eat healthy,” suggested Spellman College Professor Ashanté Reese, the author of the forthcoming book Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance and Food Access in Washington, DC.
Reese says the decline of grocery stores, particularly in communities of color, can be traced back to the 1960s and the social unrest that followed the Dr. Martin Luther King assassination. When whites left urban areas, so did grocery stores, she said. There were 91 grocery stores in Washington, DC in 1968 and just 33 by 1995, a trend that is just starting to reverse.
Moreover, as the retail meltdown continues, and brick-and-mortar stores decline nationwide, dollar stores are often one of few alternatives where poor people can shop affordably and easily for sundry items and food, but the lack of fresh and healthy food items is a particular weakness.
Another reason for the backlash against dollar stores is that overall they create fewer and lower paying jobs than traditional independent grocery stores (9 compared to 14).
Dollar stores also are incentivized by local governments with tax breaks not offered to existing retailers, which can see declining sales after these stores open, further worsening the problem of less access to high quality fresh foods.
Thus, policymakers and communities are beginning to push back against the expansion of dollar stores in underserved areas, which is a good thing.
I was raised by my divorced mother who had six kids to feed and who cooked at a resort for a living. It was tough for her to regularly afford the kind of fresh food that she served the guests of that resort, but we also lived in a rural area, where fresh produce often was available in a family member’s garden.
With most Americans living in urban areas today, it’s time to develop better approaches to delivering fresh foods to underserved communities.
Amazon's acquisition of Whole Foods may make it easier for urban consumers to access fresh foods, particularly as it works with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on a trial program for people to use the food stamp program for online food shopping, but that remains to be seen.
While there is plenty of ingenuity and opportunity to develop more and better options for food in these communities, the question is whether anyone will step up to the challenge. Wal-Mart can and has helped in some cases, but getting fresh food options nearer to those who need them most should be a priority of the food industry and community leaders.
And, if dollar stores can’t or won't do that, we shouldn’t be pushing for their expansion.
Stacy Fitzgerald is a Washington, DC area Gen Xer whose obsessions include politics, traveling and food and wine ventures.