Food Deserts And Dollar Stores (2020 Jan)

by Barry A. Liebling

In their perpetual quest for problems that need to be solved by government action, busybodies have a renewed interest in Food Deserts. A Food Desert is a geographical area, usually inhabited by low income people, where the availability of “nutritious, fresh, healthy food” is, according to these meddlers, not easy to obtain and too expensive.

Instead of large supermarkets with vast selections of items, Food Deserts have small discount stores – referred to as Dollar Stores – that sell packaged, canned, and frozen comestibles. Social policy activists are irritated that the Dollar Stores do not have more fresh produce on their shelves.

The Wall Street Journal reports that government officials in local communities are taking steps to “set things right.” Specifically, some municipalities are requiring that Dollar Stores reserve a minimum of 500 square feet for fresh fruits, vegetables, and meat. There will be no tolerance for establishments that fail to stock perishable food in abundance.

Another tactic employed by zealots is to forbid the opening of any additional Dollar Stores where Dollar Stores are already operating. The proliferation of these “small box” establishments is bothersome to crusaders against Food Deserts. In Kansas one municipal government requires a special use permit for Dollar Stores to be within 10,000 feet from one another. Tulsa Oklahoma insists that Dollar Stores to be at least one mile apart.

Let’s pull back and consider what affects the type of food that will be available in a geographic area. In a free society vendors – super markets, grocery stores, convenience stores, and Dollar Stores – locate where they believe they can operate successfully. If a lot of people in what is labeled a Food Desert want to buy fresh produce it will be recognized by businesses and made available. “Healthy food” will be sold as long as the vendor can sell at a profit. Food Deserts exist largely because the residents within them prefer to spend their money on edibles that are not on the “officially approved” list of worried activists.

Now let’s look at the implications of the “Anti-Food Desert” policies. If 500 square feet in a Dollar Store is reserved for fresh food there are two possible outcomes. Perhaps the produce does not sell well. This indicates that it is not in the store’s business interest to continue stocking these items. In that case the vendor might accept the loss as part of the cost of doing business in a government-regulated region. Alternatively, management might decide it is not worth the effort to operate in this location.

The 500 square feet of fresh offerings might be highly profitable. Local residents could be eager to purchase the “healthy food.” But note well, if the Dollar Store can make money selling produce there is no need for a legal requirement. The stores will be pleased to meet customer demand. Furthermore, you can be sure that retail establishments consider selling new items – including fresh produce – all the time. The question is how will it impact on the business. So what is the purpose of the law? The main objective of local government bullies is to show Dollar Stores who is the boss.

“Anti-Food Desert” enthusiasts are obsessed with affordability. They endlessly complain that local residents are paying too much for food. Consider a thought experiment. If you want citizens to pay less for food is it better to have many vendors or only a few? If new businesses can open at will and locate themselves wherever they please there will be constant competition. Dollar Stores will have to be careful not to charge much more than neighboring establishments. And besides price, they will be motivated to offer better products to court customers.

Go back and consider the laws that forbid Dollar Stores from being close to one another. The result of this policy is to guarantee higher prices. No reason to lower prices when you are the only store in the vicinity. When you have a government-mandated and enforced monopoly in a territory there is also little incentive to have high quality food.

What are local officials thinking who want to limit the number of Dollar Stores? It is possible that they have no idea that the principle of supply and demand applies. They may not realize that decreasing the number of vendors will increase prices. But they are clearly revealing that their focus is on exercising power rather than on assisting people in their communities.

And here is another comment about helping those who live in Food Deserts. Government zealots are not content to boss around Dollar Stores. The residents of Food Deserts are also in their sights. Obviously, people in the community are making wrong decisions when they buy groceries. You can bet that there will be plans to make “good shopping and good eating” compulsory. Social activists know that ordinary people have a duty to surrender their own judgment and comply with the directives of “experts.” Ordinary people will be supervised by know-it-all busybodies – whether they like it or not.

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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