Small boxes, big consequences

Not that anyone remembers, but Wal-Mart[1] didn’t start selling groceries until 1988. It was a shrewd move for the Waltons. Still, not everyone is celebrating. A study[2] from 2007 showed for every 3 local jobs lost, Wal-Mart replaced only 1.5. Now the number[3] of Wal-Mart stores is at 4,769 and every opening continues to “radiat[e] death[4]” to Mom and Pop shops, which are often minority owned[5] and employ women.

 

Will history repeat itself?

Dollar General is the fastest growing retailer in the US[6].  And they are planning to open 975 stores this year alone[7]. Not impressed? Well, as mind-boggling as it may seem, nationwide there are more dollar stores[8] than Wal-Marts and Starbucks combined. Such numbers and aggressive growth models make tidy profits for the shareholders too often at the expense of the small businesses and people in the communities which they occupy. Those communities[9] are rural and low-income neighborhoods.

 

The reason[10] is simple: they are easy pickins. Health outcomes, maternal-child mortality, and incarceration rates are high. Community trauma, the propensity of self-medicating, and prospect of displacement are all left unattended, if at all acknowledged. Employment, formal education levels, and access to fresh, healthy food are low.

But, people are going to eat in good times and in bad. So we need an option to get more food to more people. What we have seen that works to improve food access, using “work” in the loosest sense of the word, is to put more food where the people already are. People already shop at dollar stores. Why not let them buy food there? The short answer is using a dollar store as a grocery store creates more harm than good.

Here are some fun facts quoted from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance report [11] released December 2018:

  • The absence of grocery stores is a direct result of a history of racial discrimination by banks that have been less likely to lend to African American entrepreneurs and by supermarket chains that have tended to bypass black neighborhoods.
  • Although dollar stores sometimes fill a need in places that lack basic retail services, there’s growing evidence that these stores are the cause, not a byproduct, of economic distress.
  • In small towns and urban neighborhoods alike, dollar stores are causing full-service grocery stores to close.
  • The dollar store strategy of saturating communities with multiple outlets is making it impossible for new grocers and other local businesses to take root and grow.
  • There is a well-known and well documented discrepancy between the life expectancy in African-American communities without fresh food access and White communities with it.

 

This condition is problematic for all the reasons one might expect. Leaving communities with poor public health outcomes and few opportunities for growth encourages a permanent underclass. Shifting the preferred retailer to a conglomerate or franchise squashes entrepreneurial growth and long term opportunity to create wealth for local families. Importing food from outside of the area devalues local grown and native produce options thereby encouraging the replacement of the culturally appropriate food stuffs with inappropriate imitations. Additives and packaging necessary for shipping is neither supportive to human health nor the environment. Corporate workforce models extract opportunities as well as the social, economic, and psychological benefits of local ownership. It simply isn’t worth the trade.

 

And though I applaud Dollar General’s attempt to position themselves as “recession proof[12]. This model targets if not actively preys upon poor and marginalized people and that is unacceptable. Good news is that some municipalities are pushing back. Birmingham, Tulsa, Oklahoma City, and Mesquite’s (TX) city councils passed prohibitions[13] on new dollar stores opening.

 

When this matter comes before the City Council, New Orleans should absolutely do the same, We should stand up for the people of New Orleans and send a clear message to Dollar General and dollar stores in general. We should pass a prohibition because this is clearly not the way to grow and preserve communities.

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[1] Last visited 10/6/2019

[2] Last visited 10/8/2019

[3] Last visited 10/6/2019

[4] Last visited 10/6/2019

[5] Last visited 10/8/2019

[6] Last visited 10/6/2019

[7] Last visited 10/6/2019

[8] Last visited 10/6/2019

[9] Last visited 10/8/2019

[10] Last visited 10/8/2019

[11] Last visited 10/6/2019

[12] Last visited 10/6/2019

[13] Last visited 10/6/2019

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