Dollar stores are popping up everywhere, especially in the rural South where food stores are few and far between. In remote areas, dollar stores are a convenient place to pick up a few things without having to drive to the nearest town.
Unfortunately, the stores are also becoming an increasingly important source of general food purchases. A new study looks at how the presence of these low-price stores is changing food accessibility in rural areas.
Dollar stores typically carry foods that are low in nutrients and high in calories. The growing numbers of these stores, particularly in the South, is concerning since these areas already have high rates of obesity and food insecurity.
Two Tufts University researchers, Wenhui Feng and Sean Cash, became curious about how Americans use dollar stores to buy food. They studied food-purchase data from the IRI Consumer Network which provides information on food purchases divided by various socioeconomic factors, including households with lower incomes, the households primarily taking advantage of the proximity of dollar stores.
The stores fill a void for people who live in areas without easy access to grocery stores. That can be seen as a positive, yet it brings up questions about the healthfulness of the prepackaged, shelf-stable foods typically sold in dollar stores.
“Dollar stores play an increasingly important role in household food purchases, yet research on them is lacking. Many localities have established policies such as zoning laws aiming to slow dollar store expansion even though we don’t fully understand the role that they play,” Feng said, in a statement. “Our study is one of the first to use nationally representative data to see the role of dollar stores at the household level.”
Overall, people who buy more at dollar stores tend to be people of color or from lower-income households. In low-income and rural areas, people spend over five percent of their food budget at dollar stores, and black households in rural areas spend over 11 percent of their food budget there. Higher income households spend a smaller percentage of their food budget at dollar stores, the study found.
You aren’t likely to find fresh foods and produce in dollar stores, but the stores do fill a void for people who live in remote areas without easy access to grocery stores. That can be seen as a positive, yet it brings up questions about the healthfulness of the prepackaged, shelf-stable foods typically sold in convenience and dollar stores.
The competitive pricing of dollar stores could eventually push local grocers out of business and leave consumers with even fewer and less nutritious food options, though that isn’t likely to happen soon.
In the future, Cash and Feng plan to analyze the types of food generally purchased at dollar stores and how their nutritional value compares to foods purchased in other retail stores. They recently hosted a workshop on food access at Tufts where discussions included the impact of dollar stores on food access and any connection between dollar stores and obesity.
The study was published in the American Journal of Public Health.