Dollar General plans to open 1,000 stores in 2020; some worry they contribute to poor nutrition in rural areas

Dollar General Corp., one of the fastest-growing retailers in the country, has announced it will open 1,000 new stores in 2020, just as it did last year. That’s on top of the more than 16,000 stores it already has (dozens of which are in Kentucky). “Dollar General’s growth is nearly unrivaled in the industry at a time in which many brick-and-mortar retailers are closing stores or folding,” Nathaniel Meyersohn reports for CNN.”Walmart, which swept into new towns for decades with massive superstores, has essentially stopped opening new ones. By contrast, Dollar General is entering new cities and towns with small stores and opening up in areas where it has already gained hold.”

One reason dollar stores are so popular: despite the low unemployment rate, “wages for a vast number of Americans have grown only modestly,” Meyersohn reports. “Americans living paycheck-to-paycheck have been a boon to Dollar General, and wages for a vast number of them have grown only modestly. The chains have also reached higher-income shoppers seeking discounts.” And Dollar General appeals to convenience, offering many of the same goods as Walmart with a shorter drive.

The chain’s growing presence has hurt some small-town retailers. Small, full-service groceries in some towns have been put out of business by Dollar General Markets, which sell fresh produce and meat, though usually not with as wide a selection as the grocery they dislodged.

Most Dollar Generals sell only prepackaged food, which worries nutritionists concerned about rural health. Barry Popkin, a nutrition professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has been a long-time critic of dollar stores. “At a time when poor diets are linked to nearly 900 deaths a day in this country, Popkin says to look at what Dollar Stores sell: rows and rows of sugary drinks, candies, and processed foods high in salt and fat,” Allison Aubrey of NPR reports for CBS News. Dollar Generals are frequently located in “food deserts,” where residents have little access to fresh food and are often obliged to buy the pre-packaged food Popkin warns against.

For example: in Dekalb County, Georgia, which includes part of Atlanta, there are 68 dollar stores (a mix of Dollar General, Family Dollar, and Dollar Tree, the latter two with the same owner). County Commissioner Lorraine Cochran-Johnson told Aubrey that a quarter of the county’s residents live in food deserts, and that dollar stores target such areas. “When you look at the trends and you look at the pattern of growth of the dollar store as well as the areas that have the highest levels of obesity, hypertension, high blood pressure, there is a direct correlation,” Cochran-Johnson said.

Food-desert concerns have led some cities and towns to pass laws limiting dollar-store expansion. “Advocates of tighter controls on dollar stores claim the big chains intentionally cluster multiple stores in low-income areas, a strategy that strategy discourages supermarkets from opening and threatens existing mom-and-pop grocers, critics say,” Meyersohn reports. “Opponents also express concerns that most dollar stores don’t offer fresh produce.”

Dollar General spokesperson Crystal Ghassemi objected to the perception that dollar stores contribute to poor eating habits, and told Aubrey that even their regular stores have plain vegetables and chicken in the frozen-foods section. Only about 3 percent of Dollar General outlets sell fresh produce.