Dollar Stores: The Last, and Not So Healthy Eating Choice, Before the Food Lines

Dollar stores have proliferated like algae on a pool of stagflation. The 50-year-old Family Dollar chain marked the opening of its 500th store in 1982. By 2004 there were 5,000 Family Dollar outlets throughout America. In a statement for an article published that year in the Baltimore Daily Record, Retail Forward called dollar stores the "hottest and highest growth sectors of retailing." Currently nearly 20,000 dollar stores of every variety dot the landscape. Just last week, the Family Dollar (which has grown by 1,665 outlets in the past six years) reported a 13 percent increase in its stock.

You can find almost any common household item in dollar stores: flimsy but colorful wrapping paper and Christmas decorations, novelty cosmetics and overstock cleaning agents, exotic knick-knacks and discontinued toys. Shoppers from all walks of life are drawn to these places: some to relax, some to stumble upon a bargain, others to cut a few strategic corners that will enable them to splash out on luxuries elsewhere. But a growing number of people shop at dollar stores because they can't afford to shop anywhere else -- and one of the things they really can't afford is food.

Food prices aren't uniformly cheaper in dollar stores; often the same items can be found elsewhere on sale for less. The quiddity of the dollar store is its promise of a single, low price. Psychologically, customers seem willing to accept that they will be overcharged occasionally in exchange for never being overcharged very much while at the same time snagging mostly bargains. Accessing these bargains doesn't require buying in bulk, waiting for a sale or, in some cases, traveling to the outskirts of the city or to suburbs where major supermarkets are often located.

There also exists a parallel universe of obscure brands created especially for the dollar discount market. Thus, many staples of the American menu can be obtained for half of their grocery store prices. Just $1.49 will put a generous 24-ounce-can of Hartford House beef stew on someone's dinner table. That's a dollar less than Dinty Moore, which is sold in 15-ounce portions. Macaroni and cheese, already priced by Kraft within reach of the dollar store shopper at $1.40 a box (or 10 for $1 each), can be had in a Parade brand version for the everyday low, low price of 89 cents.

As Ellen Ruppel Shell points out in her book, Cheap: The High Price of Discount Culture, "We pay less for these products than we would for their quality counterparts, but not so much less that we are getting a really good deal." The axiom that not everything priced at a dollar constitutes a deal goes double for an essential like food.

Consumers whose circumstances require them to eat for less save money when choosing dollar store items over premium brands, but they're often eating the same food in name only. While the second ingredient in Dinty Moore stew (after water) is "beef," the primary meat used in the Hartford House brand is "diced beef patty," a substance parenthetically described as a mixture of beef, water, soy protein concentrate, salt and caramel color. Likewise the festive-sounding Parade macaroni and cheese in its Kraft-lookalike blue packaging lists flour and salt in its cheese sauce before throwing back the curtain on milk products like whey.

Perhaps the most glaring example of adulterated merchandise comes in the form of a plastic bear. "Little Honey Bear Blend" is a product marketed by the ominously named Global Brands consisting of corn syrup flavored with the "finest imported pure honey" and available for only one dollar, "considerably less than national brands." Having tasted real honey, I can state with confidence that Little Honey Bear Blend tastes exactly like corn syrup tinged with a hint of honey. A child raised on nothing else would not have that frame of reference.

A great deal of dollar store foods promise high flavor but deliver few nutrients and even lack key ingredients. Private Label's Garlic Hot Sauce contains "spice extractives" (the last ingredient, before red #40) but doesn't indicate that any of these are garlic. Likewise Lindsay Gardens' Green Tea with Chai contains "chai flavor" and also black pepper, but no cardamom. Hawaiian Punch Freezer Bars feature a flavor called "Green Berry Rush" which true to its moniker is vividly green, but contains no berries of any sort.

Distributed foods and beverages hailing from unregulated countries abound in dollar stores. Royal Dansk Danish-style butter cookies for $1.29 are made in Indonesia and distributed by a company in Melville, New York. House Mill Honey Rings are produced in Argentina and distributed by outlets in Puerto Rico, Libya and Senegal. Pickles bottled in Turkey are marketed under the Italian name Forelli and distributed by Allied International Corporation, based in Virginia.

Food is one place where it is particularly painful to have to skimp. It's one thing to suffer nicks and cuts from a shoddy shaving razor and quite another to end up obese, malnourished or sick after prolonged dependence on poor quality food. Even generic brand vitamins from major drugstore chains come certified by the United States Pharmacopeia. Not so the Nature's Benefits "Complete Multi A to Z" vitamins I purchased for $1.39. Or what about Tai Chi Flue! Tea, which comes from somewhere in China. Was more care given to the quality of its ingredients than to the spelling of the word flu?

The ethic behind dollar stores is both pervasive and perverse. Employers who seek to maximize their profit margins by slashing wages hire people who in turn attempt to stretch their diminishing dollars by purchasing discount items. Such items come from other companies that compete by slashing their wages, creating yet a lower social strata of consumers. The rock-bottom of the food chain, as it were, is the dollar store, the last stop before the food pantry, which is where a lot of unsold dollar store goods end up.

As one storekeeper curtly informed me, China—wet nurse to America—supplies the vast majority of dollar store goods. But when it comes to food, there is actually quite a bit that comes from American manufacturers. Little Debbie snacks, a product of McKee foods, is perhaps the most high-profile American brand in evidence, but Bud's Cookies, a family owned, Alabama-based business, also sells its wares to dollar stores; as does Marietta's biscuit company in New Mexico and Mrs. Pure's cookies in Illinois. The mysterious "Chef Karlin" likewise employs Illinoisans to produce bargain-priced stuffing. I spotted canned chicken chunks from Southern Hens Inc. in Mississippi, a peanut-sesame stick snack mix made by Star Snacks of New Jersey and Blue Diamond American Rice, made in the USA and sold in a two-pound bag for $1.49. Family Time popcorn of Valparaiso, Indiana (birthplace of Orville Redenbacher) bore a label reading "Proudly Made in USA."

Another finalist in the dollar store food beauty pageant was Applesnax Applesauce with Peaches, packaged as four 4-ounce tubs and priced at $1.29. Compared to Mott's Applesauce with Strawberries, which comes in a six-pack unit of equal portions, contains analogous ingredients and was found for the buy-two price of $4.00, Applesnax is no major bargain. However, Applesnax is manufactured by the Quebecois Leahy Farms, which turns out to be a family-run business.

I encountered only one food item that actually measured up to the leading competitor in quality while winning the price limbo: Cascadian Farms organic Sweet and Salty chewy granola bars, one of the few foods that can be purchased for an actual single. Proudly flouting dollar shopper expectations, the front of the box is stamped with a dime-sized "USDA Organic" logo. The box contains one fewer bars, which themselves contain more sweeteners than their competitor, General Mills' Nature's Valley brand. However Cascadian Farms manages to feature organic ingredients at only a quarter of the price. And although the inclusion of a "chocolate flavored" coating might be a turn-off for some, the absence of corn syrup is heartening.

While romantics tend to fantasize about a resurgence of locally grown produce and "slow," heirloom and gourmet specialty markets, American discount food manufacturers are meeting an undeniably growing demand for cheap eats: Family Dollar has announced plans to increase its reliance on such "private label" (off-brand) merchandise, which adds to its profit margin. And as we begin 2010 still mired in a sluggish economy, it behooves us to bend our thoughts toward how we might make better use of our food dollars, limited as they are, and shape the market to reward American enterprise while reviving the meaning of the word value.


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