Earlier this year, Fort Worth Councilwoman Kelly Allen Gray noticed something unusual in her district. A lot of dollar stores were opening their doors in a small area – over a hundred stores in a 15-mile radius. And some of her constituents didn’t like what they were seeing.
“And the more we started having the conversation, the more residents, the more citizens started joining expressing their concerns of these stores that were opening in their communities,” Gray says.
Her constituents were concerned that stores like Dollar General and Dollar Tree were keeping out full-service grocers like H-E-B and Kroger, and forcing residents to travel farther to access fresh foods.
So the councilwoman led the push to change city’s zoning code to prevent new dollar stores from opening within two miles of an existing one. Any new dollar store would also have to devote at least 15% of floor space to fresh foods.
The measure passed with an 8-1 vote this month.
But the problem of stores like Dollar General and Dollar Tree overcrowding communities isn’t limited to Fort Worth.
“There are regions or neighborhoods within a lot of major cities where there are dozens or even hundreds of dollar stores,” says Stacy Mitchell, co-director for the Insitute for Local Self Reliance, an advocacy group focusing on community economic development. “They can be as close together as a block or two apart, sometimes across the street. By opening at that level of density they really crowd out the possibility of other local businesses coming in, and particularly other grocery stores from getting a foothold in the market.”
That’s because it’s more expensive to operate a full-service grocery store. Fresh foods like fruits and vegetables don’t have the same profit margins as processed foods. And once dollar stores cover the market on those profitable processed food items, opening a new grocery store in the area becomes a risky undertaking.
“They basically skim off the profitable part of a grocery store, and they don’t offer the unprofitable part of the grocery store, which is fresh food,” Mitchell says.
That perpetuates the cycle of food deserts in underserved communities – like in Councilwoman Gray’s district, where people have to travel longer distances for healthy foods.
“My constituents leave the community in order to shop. They are the ones that I see in the grocery store in other parts of the city buying groceries,” she says.
But Gray hopes to change that by challenging the idea that low-income communities won’t shop at grocery stores. She says that by containing the explosion of dollar stores in her district other stores will see an opportunity.
“And that becomes our big thing: How do we get past the perception that communities of color don’t have money to shop, when we really and truly do, and we’re already doing it,” Gray says.
In the meantime, she says the next step is working with existing dollar stores to offer healthier options.