Stretching the dollar: Community-informed opportunities to improve healthy food access through dollar stores

Assorted vegetables

Nick Fewings -

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Dollar stores are the fastest-growing food retailer in the United States by both sheer number of stores and consumer food expenditure share. 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 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. Media coverage of dollar stores focuses on the low nutritional value of foods available, the stores’ interaction with poverty and race, competition with other food retailers, and the increasing number of local policies to prevent dollar stores’ spread. In fact, more than 50 communities have passed policies to ban, limit, or improve new dollar stores in their localities.

However, important questions remain unanswered. Do dollar stores and their limited food selection negatively impact communities and their health? Do dollar stores serve a critical role as food sources for communities otherwise lacking food retailers and affordable food options? To begin to address these questions, community voices must be collected and amplified to inform policy and corporate action. 

To this end, in April 2022, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) conducted the first national survey of consumer utilization and perceptions of dollar stores. Specifically, we surveyed 750 people who live near a dollar store and have limited financial resources. The aims of this survey were to better understand dollar store perceptions, dollar store utilization and shopping patterns, and opportunities to make healthy choices easier at dollar stores. 

Key national survey findings
  • Community members had overall positive perceptions of dollar stores. 
  • Convenience, affordability, and selection of specialty items motivated shopping at dollar stores. 
  • Low-quality products, product availability, store appearance, and inadequate staffing deterred shopping at dollar stores. 
  • Dollar store food shopping was secondary to big box stores and supermarkets but played a larger role for shoppers utilizing SNAP. 
  • Community members strongly supported increasing healthy food and beverage options at dollar stores. 

Additionally, CSPI has supported mixed-methods research, including store environment assessments, key informant interviews, and focus groups, to better understand dollar store food environments and community perceptions to inform the development of state and local healthy retail policies. Research in Michigan and Baltimore from 2021-2023 found that few dollar stores offered fresh produce, but many stocked a variety of canned and frozen fruit and vegetable items. Community members had mixed perceptions about the healthfulness and affordability of food and beverages available at dollar stores. Aligned with CSPI’s national survey findings, there was strong desire for increased availability and marketing of healthy options at dollar stores. 

Based on our survey findings and the broader research, news media, and policy context, we developed recommendations to create a healthier retail food environment at dollar stores through policy, corporate, and research action. 

Policy recommendations
  • Strengthen SNAP retailer stocking standards. 
  • Create SNAP retailer marketing standards. 
  • Pass local staple foods ordinances. 
  • Expand local dollar store density and conditional use ordinances to include healthy food criteria for new and existing dollar stores. 
  • Pass local healthy checkout policies. 
Corporate recommendations 
  • Increase the stock of healthy items to increase shopper purchases and new customer acquisition. 
  • Prioritize fresh food expansion in areas with lower incomes and limited food access. 
  • Develop and report progress annually on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) priorities that include healthy food access and nutrition goals. 
  • Implement and evaluate SNAP fruit and vegetable financial incentives in dollar stores. 
  • Expand Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) authorization of dollar stores. 
  • Apply for Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) funding to increase stock and promotion of healthy items and evaluate impact. 
  • Partner with community organizations and SNAP state and local agencies to improve healthy food access through dollar stores. 
Research recommendations 
  • Replicate the CSPI dollar store survey at the local level to inform local policy and corporate interventions. 
  • Conduct research to better understand current dollar store food environments and their variation across the country. 
  • Collaborate with dollar store corporate offices to understand relevant internal research findings, including identifying barriers to improving stock of healthy foods. 
  • Pilot healthy food marketing (i.e., product, placement, price, promotion) interventions in dollar stores. 

Despite the rapid proliferation of dollar stores and growing dollar store research, news media coverage, and policy passage, this is the first national study of community member perspectives of dollar stores. Among dollar store shoppers with limited resources, CSPI found that dollar stores had an important role in their food acquisition and identified a strong desire for dollar stores to make healthy choices more available, affordable, and accessible. Our survey results do not support widespread bans of new dollar stores. However, some communities may want to stop the spread of dollar stores locally and could replicate our survey in their community to inform policy action. Notably, policies to date have only focused on new dollar stores. Critically (and perhaps most importantly), additional policy, corporate, and research solutions are necessary to improve the healthfulness of the existing 35,000 dollar stores across the country, including through the recommendations outlined in this report. Policymakers, corporations, and researchers should leverage the ubiquity of dollar stores to improve healthy food access nationwide.

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