Why supermarkets have abandoned some of America’s poorest neighborhoods

Despite the recent news that Family Dollar would be Closing nearly 1,000 of its 8,000 American locations, Dollar stores are spreading across the country at a breathtaking pace. Since 2011, the number of dollar stores nationwide has increased from 20,000 to more than 30,000, meaning there are now more dollar stores between Walmart and McDonald’s combined than there are Walmart and McDonald’s combined, according to a report by US magazine Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Even though they rarely stock fresh fruits, vegetables and meat — and even though food deserts in the U.S. are likely to get worse — dollar stores are actually the fastest-growing grocery retailers in the United States, according to one Study 2023 by experts from Tufts University School of Medicine and the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, which was published in American Journal of Public Health.

There are several reasons for this, but one of the most significant is by far the way big-name supermarkets have largely abandoned or shunned many low-income neighborhoods over the last half century, leaving a gigantic vacuum for dollar stores to fill, especially in urban communities of color.

In “Locating supermarkets in inner-city districts: economic development outside the boxIn a 2005 study, author Kameshwari Pothukuchi wrote that many supermarkets left mixed-income inner-city neighborhoods after riots in the late 1960s and 1970s after customers left those areas during “white flight”—and never actually returned. “Supermarkets have abandoned the city center for suburban and exurban areas,” Pothukuchi wrote. “This provided more space for parking, easier loading and unloading of trucks, convenient access to highways and arterial roads, and a development context for much larger stores.”

In the 1980s, several leading grocery chains merged, further consolidating the few remaining store locations in the cities. As supermarkets left urban communities, the landscape they left behind also changed. As Dave Olverson wrote in the article Southern Urbanism Quarterly: “The death of the neighborhood grocery store“Most cities in the U.S. have made it nearly impossible to obtain building permits for certain small commercial buildings in residential neighborhoods.

“Today, academics and community leaders alike talk about ‘food deserts,'” Olverson wrote. “These conversations are often about why large supermarkets don’t choose to locate in a particular area. They rarely discuss the neighborhood grocery store that is banned across the country.”

He continued: “Essentially what this means is that in most neighborhoods people have no choice. They are forced to drive to buy their groceries. In addition, zoning regulations deprive residents of the opportunity to find solutions to their neighborhood’s problems. They have no influence on whether a large supermarket sets up shop in their area or not.”

Grocery retail experts say there are a variety of factors a supermarket’s leadership team considers when deciding where to open a new store. In a statement about this CNN in 2020Heather Garlich, spokeswoman for FMI, a grocery retail trade group, said, “Market, economic and demographic factors influence a company’s decision to open a store.” To remain viable, grocery stores need a sufficient customer base and economic support. Real estate costs and availability are important factors that determine where and how a store is built.”

However, studies have shown that some supermarket leaders may view low-income urban areas – particularly those where people of color live – as higher risk due to concerns about crime, vandalism or social instability, as well as issues of profitability, operating costs and consumer spending too Demand plays a role. This affects where they place their locations, leading to what some sociologists call “Supermarket redlining.”

Former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter has spoken of trying to convince several national grocery chains to open a location in a predominantly Black area of ​​the city by offering tax incentives but receiving little interest. “We went to virtually every national grocery retailer in our region,” Nutter said CNN. “Whites don’t believe blacks spend money, and they haven’t been willing to invest in predominantly black neighborhoods.”

If the supermarkets are actually investing, they are not necessarily there for the long term. The story of a major grocery chain setting up shop in low-income communities of color, only to leave within a few years, is unfortunately not an unfamiliar tale.

“If the supermarkets are actually investing, they’re not necessarily there for the long term.”

In 2016, Whole Foods opened its first and only location in Englewood, one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. The decision was supposedly viewed by the company’s co-CEO Walter Robb called it “one of the most meaningful things we’ve done as a company,” while the city’s then-mayor Rahm Emmanuel said the store’s opening would lead to “opening doors to a new future for the Englewood community.” to open”. ”

The store caused a stir in the majority-black neighborhood, where 72% of households are at risk of food insecurity University of Chicago data – but just five years later it closed. This decision received as much attention as the opening. Former Mayor Lori Lightfood called the move a “huge disappointment” and a “punch in the gut” for the community, while some neighborhood leaders questioned whether the site, which received $13.5 million in federal tax credits, even existed should have opened.

Another really powerful example: Aldi in 2023 closed an “important location for black and impoverished neighborhoods of Minneapolis” when they closed a location on the north side of the city.

“We are saddened, frustrated and angry that Aldi, one of North Minneapolis’ three main suppliers of fresh produce and staples at affordable prices, suddenly announced its permanent closure this week,” North Minneapolis food safety nonprofit Appetite Change wrote in a opinion by the time. “Still, we’re not surprised.”

They continued: “The Northside has a history of businesses coming into our neighborhoods and then suddenly leaving, leaving our community reeling from instability. Sudden closures, which are all too common in our community, create gaps in essential goods or services that cannot be easily or quickly replaced.”

For Aldi, however, it was just business as usual. Just two days after closing their North Minneapolis location, the company account tweeted: “As we look for new store locations, any suggestions on where we should go next?”

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