Family Dollar Closures Spark Food Desert Concerns. Here's What You Can Do

Dollar Tree just announced plans to shut 1,000 stores. The majority of the closures will be Family Dollar stores, with 600 slated for closure before the end of the year. Another 370 Family Dollar stores and 30 Dollar Tree stores will close in the following years.

This is worrying news for shoppers who now rely on Family Dollar for their grocery shopping. The fear is that the closures could leave a void and increase food insecurity in some parts of the country.

Dollar stores and food deserts

Dollar stores like Dollar Tree, which owns Family Dollar, have expanded rapidly in recent years. Some argue that it’s given customers easy access to rock-bottom prices at a time of high inflation. But there’s another side to dollar stores. A study by the University of Toronto and UCLA Anderson showed that independent grocers often close after a dollar store opens nearby.

There’s also a steep decline in the amount of fresh produce people buy when dollar stores are in the mix. Plus, they don’t always cost less. Last year we compared prices in Dollar General and Walmart. The dollar store had a slight edge overall, but several products were cheaper at Walmart.

Moreover, research suggests that dollar stores can exacerbate so-called “food deserts” — areas where it’s hard to access affordable, healthy food. The trouble is that dollar stores often push out smaller community grocers. If those dollar stores then go on to shutter their doors, as is the case with many Family Dollars, local communities will have even fewer places to shop.

Stuck in a food desert? Here’s what you can do

Unfortunately, people who live in low-income areas often pay more for food, particularly fruit and vegetables. One reason is that there are more supermarkets in wealthier areas, giving consumers more choices. Another is that transportation is harder when you have less money in your bank account.

If you find it hard to stretch your food budget and access affordable healthy food, here are four personal finance moves you might make.

1. Shop online

Grocery delivery has skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic, which is a game-changer for anyone who can’t easily get to the store. See whether any low-cost supermarkets will deliver to your home. Brookings research shows that 90% of people living in food deserts are now covered by at least one delivery service.

Many online stores, including Aldi, Walmart, Target, and Amazon accept SNAP payments via EBT cards. You’ll likely have to also use a credit card or debit card to pay delivery costs and other fees. Find out how much the delivery will cost and if you’re using services like Instacart or DoorDash, watch out for price markups.

2. Make every supermarket trip or delivery count

If reaching the supermarket is difficult, try to make fewer trips and use them to stock up on food that won’t go bad. Look to buy things like rice, pasta, beans, and canned goods in bulk. And stock your freezer with frozen vegetables so you’ve got healthy options on hand. Arm yourself with a list to make sure you don’t forget anything and use cash back apps to make your money go a little further.

I do a big online delivery order once a month for all my staples. It saves me time, and means I’m not paying for multiple deliveries or trips to the store. Plus, buying in bulk is another great way to cut costs.

3. Try local farmers markets

Farmers markets are not always cheaper than supermarkets, but they can be, especially if you look for seasonal produce. In some states, certain farmers markets will not only accept SNAP benefit payments, but double the food you get for every SNAP dollar spent.

It’s also worth asking traders for what’s known as “seconds.” Seconds may be slightly discolored or misshapen, which makes them harder to sell. You might need to use the produce a bit sooner or cut off any bad spots. But they are usually just as tasty and nobody will notice if you’re making them into soups, sauces, or smoothies.

If you have a green thumb, one way to get low-cost fresh produce is to grow your own. The growth in community gardens means you don’t have to go it alone, either. Check out the American Community Gardens Association website or use social media to connect with projects near you. If you’re a SNAP recipient, it’s worth knowing that SNAP benefits can be used to pay for seeds.

If you can’t find an urban farming group near you, look online for resources on how to start one. It isn’t a short-term solution, but it can be powerful. For example, Detroit has become well known for its projects to reclaim urban spaces and use them to grow food. Yes Magazine says there are now over 1,400 community gardens and farms in the city. These activities can help communities become more resilient and less dependent on supermarket chains.

Bottom line

The closure of almost 1,000 Family Dollar stores may come as a blow to communities who’d been relying on it for groceries. However, the growth in online shopping means there may well be low-cost alternatives that deliver to your doorstep. And perhaps the closures will act as a stimulus for farmers markets and local urban farming projects.

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