More and more communities with few to no grocery stores are looking to require that small-box retailers such as dollar stores carry some fresh foods.

In Oklahoma City, the Wall Street Journal reported that the city council was considering a plan that would require new retailers in the area to designate at least 500 square feet of space to fresh food.

CNN Business published an article earlier this year called “Dollar stores are everywhere. That’s a problem for poor Americans.”

The article noted that rising numbers of dollar stores trouble some policymakers who believe the discount chains “stifle local competition and limit poor communities’ access to healthy food.

Dollar General and Dollar Tree combine for more than 30,000 stores throughout the U.S. and company officials believe there is room in the market for many thousands more. By way of contrast, Walmart has a paltry 4,700 stores, according to the article.

The USDA offers a visualization of food deserts online in a tool called the Food Environment Atlas. The Wall Street Journal report said that the USDA estimates that 39 million people, or 12.8% of the population live in food deserts, with few fresh food choices close by and access to transportation limited.

As a way to blunt the effect of food deserts, the USDA also is involved with the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which distributes some grants to improve fresh food access in under-served communities.

Recent publicity about dollar stores adding fresh produce may be overstated. The Wall Street Journal noted that recent by January, 650 Dollar General locations will sell produce, but that is still only just 4.1% of the company’s 16,000 stores.

States have been engaged with the issue as well but have tended toward the carrot more than the stick:

  • In Nevada, lawmakers supported a bill in June that provides for tax credits for businesses that invest in certain fresh food retailers located in underserved communities and similar areas;
  • In Mississippi, a law was passed and signed by the governor March called the Small Business and Grocer Investment Act” that aims to provide  “dedicated source of financing for healthy food retailers operating in underserved communities in Mississippi, in both urban and rural areas,  to increase access to affordable healthy food so as to improve diets and health; to promote the sale and consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, in natural and/or frozen form, particularly those that are Mississippi grown and to support expanded economic opportunities in low-income and rural communities.”
  • A similar bill in New Jersey  hopes to encourage more fresh produce consumption. The Healthy Small Food Retailer Act, according to a summary, seeks to provide support to small food retailers operating in New Jersey, in both urban and rural areas, to sell more fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods at affordable prices to neighborhood residents in an effort to improve the health and wellness of all New Jerseyans.

Finally, CNN Business published an opinion piece by Darya Minovi called “Dollar General isn’t doing enough to bring healthy food to low-income Americans.”

 Minovi, a policy associate at the Center for Science in the Public Interest focusing on healthy retail policies, sums up her piece in this way:

“To make a meaningful difference for consumers, Dollar General will need to prioritize fresh produce and more nutritious options. If not, communities will continue to follow the example of places like Tulsa, Oklahoma; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Mesquite, Texas, which have instituted policies to limit the rapid expansion of dollar stores, given their anticompetitive impacts. The success of America’s fastest-growing food retailer should not come at the expense of Americans’ health.”

TK: How can the collective industry move dollar stores to take the fast track to feature more fresh produce? What implications will that have for the rest of the fresh produce supply chain?

More from The Packer archives:

Dollar stores grow: Will fresh produce be left behind?

Produce expectations for Dollar General rise too quickly

Southern California still offers opportunity for retailers