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.