Governments and industry have opportunity to leverage dollar stores’ ubiquity and popularity to promote healthy foods
Americans with lower incomes who live near Dollar General, Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, or other dollar stores hold surprisingly positive views about the role those establishments play in their communities, according to the first-of-its-kind national survey of dollar store utilization and perception commissioned by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest. While 82 percent of respondents said dollar stores helped their communities, just as many (81 percent) indicated that dollar stores should stock more healthy products and three-quarters (74 percent) indicated dollar stores should do more to market healthier options, including by placing healthy options in prominent places in stores, according to the report.
Dollar stores are the fastest-growing food retailer in the United States by both sheer number of stores and consumer food spending. Just two corporations, Dollar General and Dollar Tree (which also owns Family Dollar), operate more than 35,000 stores across the country. A limited but growing body of research finds dollar stores offer only limited healthy food options and play an especially prominent role in food environments in the South and Midwest regions and in rural communities, Black and Latine communities, and communities with limited financial resources, according to CSPI.
Besides surveying consumers, CSPI funded focus groups, key stakeholder interviews, and in-store environment assessments in order to inform a set of recommendations for federal and local policymakers, industry, and researchers to help leverage the ubiquity and popularity of dollar stores to help create a healthier food environment, including developing a dollar store local model ordinance.
CSPI’s survey indicates that dollar stores have a business opportunity to attract new customers. While existing dollar store shoppers appreciate the convenience of the dollar store experience, citing proximity, store size, and quick shopping trips, some consumers avoid shopping at dollar stores at all. Among dollar store non-shoppers, 58 percent stated they did not shop there because of the low quality of the products available. But improvements could bring some of those shoppers in for the first time. Roughly half of respondents said they would be more inclined to shop at dollar stores if the stores discounted fruit and vegetable purchases for participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) (53 percent), added more healthy food options (50 percent), added more healthy snacks (50 percent), or had a “healthier choices” food section (46 percent).
Respondents shopped most frequently and acquired the greatest share of food at big box stores and supermarkets, followed by dollar stores. Many respondents also mentioned being able to stretch their budgets at the dollar store, including SNAP participants purchasing more food with their benefits. SNAP participants also reported shopping for food at dollar stores more often than non-SNAP participants.
“Given the negative media reporting surrounding dollar stores, and efforts in some communities to restrict the stores’ spread, we were surprised to find that so many people who live near dollar stores appreciated their convenience and prices,” said CSPI senior policy scientist Sara John. “Yet we also found that the dollar store industry has an opportunity to satisfy current shoppers and attract new shoppers by stocking more healthy food products. Moreover, we’ve identified a number of policy levers at the federal and local levels that can encourage the existing 35,000 dollar stores to better serve the communities in which they operate, adding to existing policy efforts that have been focused on new dollar stores to date.”
One of the most impactful federal policy changes that could improve the food environment at dollar stores would be for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to strengthen existing SNAP stocking standards to better align with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, according to the report. Retailers authorized for SNAP are currently required to stock only a small number of foods, three units of three varieties across four categories, or 36 items total. Stronger, nutrition-promoting SNAP retailer stocking standards would require all retailers that accept SNAP, including dollar stores, to increase the number of healthy food offerings at their stores nationwide.
CSPI also recommends the establishment of SNAP retail marketing standards, such as requirements for healthy checkout lanes and other measures to place healthy options in prominent locations.
At the local level, CSPI urges the passage of local ordinances for all retailers, including dollar stores, which would require food retailers to stock more healthy options, and to pass measures requiring healthier options at checkout aisles. Minneapolis has a staple foods ordinance in effect, and Berkeley and Perris, Calif., have each passed such healthy checkout measures.
More than 50 communities have passed policies to ban, limit, or improve dollar stores, including through dispersal ordinances that prevent new dollar stores from opening within a certain distance of existing dollar stores. CSPI recommends expanding the scope of existing local dollar store ordinances to include healthy food criteria for new and existing dollar stores.
Rather than wait for more federal or local activity, dollar stores should decide on their own—now—to better serve their communities, according to CSPI. Besides stocking more fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods, dollar stores should prioritize fresh food expansion in areas with lower incomes and limited food access and consider implementing pilot programs that discount fruit and vegetable purchases for SNAP participants.
Dollar stores could increase the number of stores authorized to participate in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), especially in areas lacking WIC-authorized retailers. Meeting WIC’s separate stocking standards could improve dollar store shopping for all consumers, not just WIC participants, according to CSPI. And dollar stores should also take advantage of the federal Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI), which makes investments to improve access to healthy foods in underserved areas, says the group. By applying for HFFI funding, dollar stores would add additional refrigeration equipment or make other investments necessary to accommodate more healthy food items.
“Dollar stores might not be for everyone, but it is undeniable, for better or worse, that they are a growing and overlooked source of food for many Americans, especially those who live in areas with limited other food retail options,” John said. “Consumers who shop at dollar stores don’t want them to go away, but they do want them to be better neighbors nutritionally for the benefit of themselves and their families. Congress, USDA, and local communities can help point the industry in the right direction.”
Last week CSPI issued a separate report on how lawmakers could use the Farm Bill to promote changes to SNAP that would support healthy eating. That report also recommended that USDA increase stocking standards beyond the 36 staple foods currently required. That would require Congress to remove an appropriations rider which currently prohibits the USDA from updating its standards to include more items.
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