January 19, 2019

America and the Dollar Store

“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.

A recent research brief by the Institute of Local Self Reliance (ILSR), a nonprofit supporting local economies, sheds light on the massive growth of this budget enterprise. 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. That, ILSR says, is bad news.

“While dollar stores sometimes fill a need in cash-strapped communities, growing evidence suggests these stores are not merely a byproduct of economic distress,” the authors of the brief write. “They’re a cause of it.”

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.”

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