We are informed by a recent report in City Journal that a number of communities around the country have identified what they see as a prime contributor to poor nutrition and health outcomes among some of our nation’s poorest citizens. You might think that the cause could be a lack of education about nutrition, high prices or just unhealthy eating habits. But you’d be wrong. The real culprits, you see, are those dollar stores that keep popping up in strip malls all over the place. How could that be? Your guess is as good as mine, so let’s see what they have to say about it.

About 20 years ago, academic researchers began describing poor urban neighborhoods without supermarkets as “food deserts.” The term captured the attention of elected officials, activists, and the media. They mapped these nutritional wastelands, blamed them on the rise of suburban shopping centers and the decline of mass transit, linked them to chronic health problems suffered by the poor, and encouraged government subsidies to lure food stores to these communities.

Despite these efforts, which led to hundreds of new stores opening around the country, community health outcomes haven’t changed significantly, and activists think that they know why. The culprits, they say, are the dollar-discount stores in poor neighborhoods that—or so they claim—drive out supermarkets and sell junk food. Never mind that compelling research suggests a lack of supermarkets isn’t the problem—let alone the popularity of discount stores.

The issue of “food deserts” is a real one and it’s far from being limited to only low-income urban neighborhoods. Where we really see this effect is out in small, rural townships where there isn’t a big enough population to support a major chain grocery store. When such a retail outlet closes and no smaller store takes its place, people have to travel a long way just to buy groceries, and that’s not easy on a tight budget.

But how do dollar stores come into the picture? Some are claiming that these stores sell overly-processed, unhealthy food and don’t offer enough healthy options. A number of communities including Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Fort Worth and Birmingham have decided that these bargain outlets are definitely part of the problem. And what did they do in response? They started passing new government regulations of course. If they didn’t ban the stores outright, they tried to force them to make changes to their business model such as limiting the number of these types of stores in any given area or forcing them to carry fresh foods.

Another common complaint cited in the report is that dollar stores “make neighborhoods seem run-down. It’s a recipe for locking in poverty rather than reducing it.”

But perhaps the real reason can be found in a report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest. It claims that “When you have so many dollar stores in one neighborhood, there’s no incentive for a full-service grocery store to come in.”

Ah, there it is. Someone is unhappy with the competition. Fewer people will spend what it costs to go to Wegmans or Whole Foods if they can get a comparable product for a buck at the local dollar store. But the government shouldn’t be involved in these affairs at all, assuming all of the outlets meet the standard health and safety codes. If people want to shop at a dollar store and get something they like to eat, that’s their business. And shutting that store down won’t stop most people from making unhealthy dining decisions. The responsibility to do that falls on the shopper, not the local government.

This is yet another case of government regulatory impulses going awry. And rather than fixing a problem, they wind up exacerbating it instead.