Business & Economy

Dollar stores are filling Vermont’s food deserts. Are they helping?

Dollar General
A Dollar General in Barre. Photo by Erin Petenko/VTDigger

Barre is ringed by grocery stores: Shaw’s and Price Chopper to the north, Hannaford to the south and Quality Market up the hill heading outside of town.

But the heart of downtown has lacked a grocery store since a former Grand Union closed after a corporate sale more than a decade ago. That leaves no grocery store in walking distance —  downtown residents without cars must take a bus to get to one, Mayor Lucas Herring said in an interview this month.

Another option has filled the gap, with mixed reception: dollar stores. Two Dollar Generals -- one at the northwest end of the city and another store at the southern end — are closer to the city center than the closest grocery stores, and they sell cheap staples like canned goods, frozen microwave-ready meals, household goods and plenty of snacks.

For low-income families, the arrival of chain dollar stores can make food shopping more accessible and affordable. But the stores’ offerings don’t fully meet the needs of consumers, and low prices can put pressure on competitors with more diverse and fresh products.

Barre is not the only town that has experienced a dollar store boom.

Vermont had at least 60 dollar stores in 2018, nearly double the number of stores six years before, according to USDA data. That’s similar to national trends: The number of dollar stores nationally grew from fewer than 20,000 in 2011 to 29,000 in 2018.

The number of convenience stores that accept food stamps has also increased, rising from 200 in 2008 to 346 a decade later, according to USDA data on retailers that accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, known in Vermont as 3SquaresVT.

Dollar General, Dollar Tree and Family Dollar stores have come to a state where many low-income residents are struggling to find food. The Vermont Department of Health estimates that 30% of low-income towns are more than 15 minutes from a grocery store, and USDA data shows a lack of food options for far-flung rural Vermonters and urban Vermonters without transportation.

If there’s no population to support a store, there will be no grocery store, said Jane Kolodinsky, an economist and food researcher at the University of Vermont. But when the grocery store leaves, there are fewer amenities to support that rural population. 

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“It’s a further cause of the decline of rural America,” she said.

Extra time to make a grocery store run can be a burden, particularly for low-income Vermonters, said John Sayles, CEO of the Vermont Foodbank.

“It can be really challenging to get to a full-service grocery store, and when you do it’s much more expensive,” he said. “If you’re a single mother with kids, you have a limited food budget, and you are spending a portion of that budget on fresh food your kids might not even eat, and you have to prep? It’s a full-time job being poor.”

Sayles has a mixed opinion of dollar stores. They have food available at prices often lower than other places, and in urban areas they’re accessible to people without cars. And careful shoppers could get nutritious meals out of the canned goods and frozen staples sold in dollar stores.

Yet a full grocery store would provide far better options, he said. (Vermont Foodbank received $100,000 in a settlement between Dollar General and the Attorney General over deceptive pricing.)

Dollar General
While dollar stores often offer easier access and lower prices, their range of food products is more limited than grocery stores. Photo by Erin Petenko/VTDigger

Kolodinsky said dollar stores tend to have more processed food laden with calories and saturated fat. While the arrival of dollar stores in areas without grocery stores gives people local food shopping options, it doesn’t necessarily address the issue of access to affordable, healthy options.

“I worry there will be a proliferation of places where you can get food, and the conversation goes away,” she said. “But that shuts off the conversation of what kind of food people have access to.”

Searching for veggies in the Granite City

Barre was a thriving industrial town at the turn of the 20th century, but the decline of its granite industry has led to economic struggles. More than a quarter of residents in Barre City are below the poverty line, double the Vermont average. Little data exists on car ownership, but about 27% of residents don’t drive themselves to work, higher than the rest of Vermont.

Residents of downtown Barre tend to be poorer than those in the surrounding hills of Barre Town, said Nick Landry, president of Granite City Grocery.

Landry is familiar with the grocery store divide in Barre. A longtime resident, he has been working to get a cooperative grocery store off the ground in the city since 2013. His father, Bruce, recalls the old Grand Union, now the home of Lenny’s Shoe & Apparel. “That store was profitable, but the company wasn’t,” Bruce said.

Locals have some sporadic food options, like a seasonal farmers market and the Capstone food bank and community group. There are convenience stores as well, but one owner said he’d been struggling to compete since Dollar General opened up down the road. 

“We can’t buy items wholesale as cheap as they can, and we can’t compete pricewise. They have so much buying power. They even sell tobacco and alcohol,” said Rick Dente, owner of Dente’s Market. 

Dente’s, on the main road, Route 302, just north of downtown, sells snacks, basic foods and alcohol along with some fresh fruits and deli meats. The end of Burlington News Agency’s magazine distribution has hit it hard as well, and the magazine rack sits nearly empty with just a few hobby magazines. Dente said he plans to close the store next year and try to re-open it with a new focus.

Other nearby stores have pivoted their business to gain an edge. Quality Market, a locally owned grocery store up the road from Barre, started offering fully cooked meals and a bigger produce aisle to draw in daily customers. 

“We have found our niche is really our new entrees and our meat department. There aren’t very many places where you can get custom cut-to-order steak,” said Pam Trag, owner of Quality Market. 

Quality Market
Local stores like Quality Market have changed their offerings to try to gain an edge in the face of the rise of dollar stores. Photo by Erin Petenko/VTDigger

Nick Landry hopes to target a still-unfilled market — residents who want produce and affordable groceries within walking distance. 

“People downtown are keenly aware Barre’s a food desert,” he said. “People with cars just come from Shaw’s and bounce to Hannaford.”

Right now, Granite City Grocery, still in early planning stages, is working on getting new members. Seven hundred households have signed up to join the cooperative. Landry envisions the store combining low-cost staples with more expensive specialty produce, hoping that income from the latter will help keep the former affordable.

Hunger Free Vermont is also working with local officials to map food access in Barre. Monica Taylor, Hunger Free’s representative on the project, said other “hunger councils” across the state are keeping an eye on it as a model to clarify a complex issue. 

One area of the state has been more successful in getting grocery stores into its downtown — Burlington. After a major grocery store closure, the city commissioned a study that led it to award City Market the chance to replace its old store in 1999. 

But there’s still a divide, Kolodinsky said. “If you look at where the major grocery stores are, they’re not downtown. They’re on the outskirts.”

It’s all about access and cost, Sayles said. “There’s plenty of food available. The reason we have hunger in Vermont is people don’t have money to buy food, or they don’t have money to pay for transportation to buy the food.”

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Erin Petenko

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