It has become an increasingly common story: A dollar store opens up in an economically depressed area with scarce healthy and affordable food options, sometimes with the help of local tax incentives. It advertises hard-to-beat low prices but it offers little in terms of fresh produce and nutritious items—further trapping residents in a cycle of poverty and ill-health.
Since 2001, outlets of Dollar General and Dollar Tree (which bought Family Dollar in 2015) have grown from 20,000 to 30,000 in number. Though these “small-box” retailers carry only a limited stock of prepared foods, they’re now feeding more people than grocery chains like Whole Foods, which has around 400-plus outlets in the country. In fact, the number of dollar-store outlets nationwide exceeds that of Walmart and McDonalds put together—and they’re still growing at a breakneck pace.
Dollar stores have succeeded in part by capitalizing on a series of powerful economic and social forces—white flight, the recent recession, the so-called “retail apocalypse”—all of which have opened up gaping holes in food access. But while dollar store might not be causing these inequalities per se, they appear to be perpetuating them. The savings they claim to offer shoppers in the communities they move to makes them, in some ways, a little poorer.
The “food desert” paradox
Ashanté Reese, an assistant professor at Spelman College, lives on Atlanta’s Westside, within two miles of a pair of dollar stores. Her zip code was particularly hard hit in the recession, suffering a 50 percent foreclosure rate. Those demographics are now changing, but the residents for a long time included elderly folks and people on fixed incomes—the exact kind of shoppers dollar-store executives have said they are targeting.
Like Walmart before them, these retailers present themselves as creators of jobs and sources of low-cost goods and food in “left-behind”areas—both urban and rural. The 2008 recession bolstered their numbers, simultaneously restricting the resurgence of traditional grocery stores and swelling the potential customer base. Middle-class shoppers started frequenting these stores. In 2009, the New York Times picked up on the trend: “Those once-dowdy chains that lured shoppers by selling some or all of their merchandise for $1 are suddenly hot.”
As the retail meltdown continues, in which many higher-end retailers in malls and shopping centers shutter or consolidate, compact low-budget dollar stores have easily slipped into the vacant spaces left behind.
“It was about retaining the soul of the community,” he told The Guardian. “It was about, what kind of town do we want?”
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