For years, the Rev. Donald Perryman wondered why the formerly thriving Black downtown of Toledo, Ohio, couldn’t get a grocery store.
His suspicions were confirmed after a city study found in 2020 that the opening of new Dollar General stores drove other companies out of business, deterring potential grocers from investing there. He, along with a group of ministers, knew that in order to get a supermarket, they had to stop new chain dollar stores from plaguing their communities. They made great strides when the Toledo City Council passed a moratorium the same year that required new small-box retail stores to apply for a special-use permit.
The moratorium expired a year later, however — without the community’s knowledge — and a new Dollar General opened down the street from Perryman’s church on Dorr Street.
This month, the city proposed a $12 million project to construct a food incubation hub that would deliver fresh and healthy foods to local markets and low-income areas such as Dorr Street. Without renewed legislation, Perryman fears the threat of another dollar store could jeopardize the project, halting their years-long efforts.
Now, his coalition is pushing the city to ban these stores altogether.
The ongoing fight in Toledo represents one of many small-scale efforts nationwide to restrict Dollar General and Dollar Tree, which owns Family Dollar, the fastest-growing food retailers in the U.S. Some Black residents and elected officials argue the stores stifle economic growth and job creation, and exacerbate food insecurity. The stores are also disproportionately in areas that are low-income, rural, and Black, which experts say is racist.
“They’re like an invasive species. They overpower all the resources and make the businesses in those neighborhoods vulnerable. That’s where dollar stores can thrive,” Perryman, 70, said. “No matter what community, the cause of food deserts stem from one route, and that’s economic disinvestment in vulnerable communities.”
Why Black neighborhoods lack certain amenities
Dollar stores are not only concentrated in low-income Black neighborhoods, but in high-income Black communities as well.
An April study by the Brookings Institution found that wealthy Black neighborhoods in metro areas such as Dallas, Los Angeles, and New York, were less likely to be within 1 mile of a premium grocery store than wealthy neighborhoods with fewer Black residents.
Andre Perry, senior fellow at Brookings Metro and co-author of the report, said the lack of a grocery store signals to other investors and businesses that the area is not worth investing in, which leads to weaker tax bases and more dollar chain stores.
“How prevalent a problem this is that even your upper income Black neighborhoods aren’t getting the amenities that other upper income neighborhoods enjoy,” Perry said. “You’re almost left with saying, ‘Hey, if this community was not Black, you would see greater investment, and as a result, also better food access and quality in some cases.’ We shouldn’t have to recruit white people to get grocery stores.”
Ashanté Reese, assistant professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, said this isn’t a money problem, but a racism problem, and the issue is even more dire in resource-strapped rural areas.
“We could put a whole bunch of reasons why stores say they locate where they do or where they don’t, but a large part of this truly has come down to racism and a lack of imagination,” Reese said. “The fact that our food system is largely driven by corporate chains is a problem because they are definitely profit driven in a way that doesn’t leave a lot of room to care about people.”
Fast growth to fill a void — but at what cost?
Dollar General and Dollar Tree operated more than 34,000 stores at the beginning of last year, more than McDonald’s, Starbucks, Target, and Walmart combined, according to research from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. In the future, they plan to grow to more than 51,000 stores.
Over the years, dollar stores have expanded their food options, which tend to be mostly packaged, higher in calories, and lower in nutrients, a Tufts University study found. Researchers wrote that the dollar stores may be filling food voids where local grocers do not have enough businesses to support maintaining a store, leaving residents with fewer food options, especially in rural areas.
For more than a decade, dollar stores have been the fastest-growing food retailers by household expenditure share, with an increase of nearly 90% from 2008 to 2020 according to Tufts University. In rural areas, the increase was 103%.
In rural and low-income areas, people, on average, spend more than 5% of their food budget at dollar stores. In rural Black households, they spent nearly 12%. One reason: They are likely to be located further from grocery stores.
The limited healthy food offerings is a major criticism of the stores. It is why some Black leaders have been leading the charge to stop dollar stores from suffocating their communities.
The fight to stop ‘predator retailers’
Vanessa Hall-Harper, District 1 City Councilor for Tulsa, Oklahoma, paved the way for other cities when she passed the first ordinance curbing dollar stores in 2018. Whenever new construction or development broke ground in the city, Family Dollar or Dollar General stores popped up, and most times within miles of one another, she said. Her constituents in north Tulsa wondered why they had to travel outside their community to go grocery shopping.
Similar to Perryman, Hall-Harper conducted research, created an idea to limit the number of dollar stores, then presented it to the city’s legal team. Their response: It’s illegal, and the city would be sued. She then went to the mayor, who directed the team to assist her in creating a policy.
After months of meetings, in April 2018, they enacted a policy called the Healthy Neighborhoods Overlay, which amended the city’s zoning laws to permanently restrict the building of discount stores in the city’s underserved communities. It also provided incentives to promote businesses selling healthier food options.
The journey didn’t end there. Hall-Harper reached out to grocery stores — both small and large — to locate to the area. They all declined. She reached out to the Tulsa Economic Development Corp. to find funding to recruit someone to open a supermarket. Two years ago, the North Tulsa community secured its first grocer, Oasis Fresh Market, in more than a decade.
Despite pushback, she kept going and advised other leaders to do the same.
“It’s incumbent upon leaders to step up and not just go with the status quo because these dollar stores don’t proliferate white communities, they only do that for Black, brown, and poor communities where people are less likely to have a voice or have a leader that’s going to stand up and push back against big money,” Hall-Harper said. “There’s always those that profit and then there are those that are profited off of.”
Since then, at least 54 cities and towns have enacted laws that restrict new dollar stores. At least 75 communities have blocked proposed dollar stores, with the majority of those occurring between 2021 and 2022, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance report.
Through city ordinances, a few places have created temporary moratoriums on the opening of new dollar stores. At least 39 adopted permanent ordinances, which either require a store to open within 1 to 5 miles of an existing dollar store or set a limit on the number of dollar stores in a community. Only one community, in Stonecrest, Georgia, imposed a total ban on new dollar stores, the report said.
Cheaper prices — but look closer
While there have been some efforts to stop the stores, advocates say some people enjoy shopping at dollar stores because of its cheaper prices.
In Baltimore, Democratic state Sen. Mary Washington heard from community members who frequented dollar stores, citing its convenience and good deals. They called others who didn’t like the offerings “bougie.”
While the products seem cheaper, many of the products are packaged in smaller quantities and cost more per unit size. One example: Old Spice deodorant. At Dollar Tree, a 0.8 ounce of Old Spice deodorant costs $1.25, but it’s less than one-third the size of the standard size. The same 0.8 ounce stick costs $1.08 or less at Target and Walmart, respectively. A 16-ounce carton of milk is about $8 a gallon, more than quality milk at Whole Foods.
“There are some people in the communities that feel like, ‘What do you got against dollar stores?’ … They provide quality things for poor people,’” Washington said. “When you explain … they sell canned goods that are very close to the expiration day, or they’re expanding their grocery section so now we can’t get a full service grocery store into the community … they get it.”
A spokesperson for Dollar Tree-Family Dollar told Civil Eats last year that they were aware of the concerns.
“We understand the concerns of many local officials regarding the changing nature of our shared communities across the country, and — as part of those communities — we are looking for ways to help our neighborhoods be healthier, safer, and more prosperous,” the statement said.
Dollar General spokeswoman Crystal Luce told Civil Eats that “a meaningful number of its [new] stores are expected to be in current food deserts to help address food insecurity across the country.”
For Perryman, he’s not giving up. He said Toledo is moving in the right direction with the $12 million project, but hopes the city will create a policy that disincentivizes dollar stores — if not an outright ban — and creates a healthy food overlay, reflective of Hall-Harper’s legislation in Tulsa.
“This [fight for a grocery store] is my baby. … After you have a baby, you can’t just have kids. You have to raise kids. You’ve got to protect them from the predators,” he said. “Let’s raise this investment now. We’ve got it. We’ve got to maintain it and protect it from these predator retailers.”
A previous version of this story misidentified the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.