A “food desert”, as defined by the US Department of Agriculture, is a rural community or urban neighborhood where one-third of the residents live more than 10 miles from a grocery store selling fresh produce.
These are among the places the fast-growing retail giant Dollar General plants its stores. And to these food deserts, Dollar Tree brings more sand.
Dollar Generals tend to bury local groceries where they may have been the only accessible hope for fresh fruits and vegetables for 10 miles around.
There are studies that suggest a link between dollar stores like Dollar General, Dollar Tree or Family Dollar and unhealthy eating. Well, yeah,– it’s hard to eat healthy if there’s no healthy food around, no fresh fruits and vegetables, no fresh cut meat or fish, just canned this and boxed that and frozen the other, because that’s all the edibles the Dollar stores offer.
Well, that’s a lot better than nothing, is what Dollar General would respond, because it targets not so much food deserts as retail deserts, or as a former CEO of Dollar General described his corporate strategy, “we went where they ain’t.”
But even when Dollar General goes where there are local competitors and kills them off it offers the same utilitarian argument: we do more business – and generate more local tax revenue – because more people choose to shop with us. Because we’re offering lower prices, longer opening hours, a wider range of packaged products beyond groceries products.
Dollar General says it makes more things more accessible for more people at low prices. Which leaves customers with money left over the buy healthy food wherever they can find it. OK, if they can find it.
Dollar General is opening stores at a rate of 3 a day. It already has more than McDonalds. They can’t keep it up, says a local grocer from Haven, Kansas, put out of business by a Dollar General. He told our guest, reporter Chris McGreal of The Guardian: “Dollar General is building just as fast as it can. … But somewhere down the line, as these small towns dry up, business for Dollar General is going to dry up just like it does for a grocery store. If there’s nobody new coming to town and your older population is dying off and they’re not getting replaced very quickly, who are they going to sell to?”
McGreal saw towns like that, but he saw others that weren’t simply dying but changing. Farmers and ranchers going away commuters who work in bigger towns moving in. Like that future or not, it’s probably the one Dollar General is planning to keep growing in.
Chris McGreal is a regular writer for Guardian US and a former Guardian correspondent in Washington, Johannesburg and Jerusalem