“Let them eat Whole Foods!”

This latest front in the food wars has emerged over the last few years. Communities like Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Fort Worth, Birmingham, and Georgia’s DeKalb County have passed restrictions on dollar stores, prompting numerous other communities to consider similar curbs. New laws and zoning regulations limit how many of these stores can open, and some require those already in place to sell fresh food. Behind the sudden disdain for these retailers—typically discount variety stores smaller than 10,000 square feet—are claims by advocacy groups that they saturate poor neighborhoods with cheap, over-processed food, undercutting other retailers and lowering the quality of offerings in poorer communities. An analyst for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, for instance, argues that, “When you have so many dollar stores in one neighborhood, there’s no incentive for a full-service grocery store to come in.” Other critics, like the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, go further, contending that dollar stores, led by the giant Dollar Tree and Dollar General chains, sustain poverty by making neighborhoods seem run-down.

Here is the full article, via Walter Olson.


But are Whole Foods a significant part of America's cultural heritage?

And how many cruise missiles would it take to win the war on poverty?

Behind every bleeding heart espousing a busybodied concern about the poor "not making the right choices" lies a selfish neurotic middle-class professional worried about his property values.

It's really the property values crowd that carefully uses politically correct framing like "think of the poor" or "what about the environment" to push their NIMBY agenda. Doesn't matter if it is San Francisco as we normally expect or even Oklahoma City as we see here, it's the same dirty but effective tactic.

a nation's dirt should belong to everyone...no person or entity should be allowed to own land...if national unity is a priority all land should be publicly owned and leased perpetually to private individuals and corporations...the value of land is determined by amenities built by others...Henry George had it right

how is something that happens in poor neighborhoods connected to property values in middle class neighborhoods?

"Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Fort Worth, Birmingham, and Georgia’s DeKalb County" don't strike me as places infested with bleeding hearts.

No, they are trying to keep the riff-raff out, but in so doing "treat" the symptom rather than the problem.

It's not really the American dream that so many need, rather than choose, to survive on a dollar store diet.

Birmingham (like most cities), is extremely liberal, and run by a majority black council that still has its head stuck in 1969. Most of their initiatives have roots in the black caucus in D.C. If D.C. tells them they are being taken advantage of by dollar stores, well by golly they are going to do something about those evil dollar stores. If they can also make a buck under the table by strongarming local supermarkets, well that's just politics. While they can kill the dollar stores, they have no leverage to force the big supermarket chains into those same neighborhoods to fill the void. So instead they end up creating even more food deserts, which leads to more complaining about evil corporations, generational poverty, and crime.

I cannot vouch for the other cities but I would assume them to be the same.

This is the left using the poor to further their political objectives without regard to any harm it might cause the poor.

"don't strike me as places infested with bleeding hearts"

You're probably not from near any of those places. Dekalb County GA is dominated by the left.

Those are all fairly large cities - out here in the Southwest and Midwest the cities are full of 'leftists' trying to use the coercive power of government to change the way other people live their lives.

It out in the sticks where you'll find all the hicks.

Planet Money had a podcast last year about Dollar Stores in Tulsa and the fight to stop (?) them:


After the heroic, winning battle to stop expansion of more dollar stores, the town of North Tulsa is getting a grocery store! Then they throw in this little tidbit:

"They did also get some federal grant money for their grocery store."


America is splitting into tribes that shop at Dollar Tree and tribes that shop at Whole Foods. What the hell is happening to my country.

The article says that rich people shop at dollar stores.

Such is life in Trump's America.

+1 Key insight.

In my town, there's a place called Valli Produce. It's cheap, looks like something from 100 years ago or a developing country, but it's healthy. The shoppers are overwhelmingly immigrants (Mexicans, Poles, Indians, Chinese) but it is open to everyone.

Why are poor people not allowed to buy junk food and get diabetes if that's what they want? If social justice advocates want poor people to eat broccoli and cauliflower instead of cheetos, persuade them to do so voluntarily instead of depriving them of the same freedom of choice that the social activists enjoy. Teach them how to bake bread and give them surplus flour.

Bread is unhealthy, eat fruit, vegetables, meat, and nuts, instead.

Did you read the article? It isn't strictly about consumer choice but also jobs and preventing the neighborhood from being run down. Getting a Whole Foods or Costco into your neighborhood will do wonders on all points and is easily worth more than an army of Dollar Generals (no pun intended).

"Getting a Whole Foods or Costco into your neighborhood will do wonders on all points "

You're confusing cause and effect. Cities and neighborhoods get Whole Foods stores because they already have (or are gaining) a critical mass of affluent potential customers. If Whole Foods was dumb enough to plunk a store in the middle of a declining, lower-income neighborhood, that wouldn't make the area wealthy. The store would just lose money and close. But when a Whole Foods opens in a gentrifying area, the original residents don't cheer about the new gourmet options or rising property values, they complain about white hipsters coming in and pricing them out of their neighborhood. The truth of the matter is that Whole Foods isn't going to commit to a neighborhood until the gentrification process is already well underway. One of the folks interviewed in the video I linked to about Whole Foods in Harlem said that the store was 'the nail in the coffin for the old Harlem' and another pointed out that Whole Foods didn't come until a critical mass of wealthier white people had moved in. Exactly.

Also, one of the main places that dollar stores will go that no Whole Foods or Costco (or even Walmart) will touch are small, rural towns. That's where their effects are greatest.

Getting a Whole Foods or Costco into your neighborhood will do wonders on all points and is easily worth more than an army of Dollar Generals (no pun intended).

In related news, wet streets cause rain.

1. 'run down' is in the eye of the beholder.

2. The existence of a 'dollar store' does not make a neighborhood 'run down'. In fact, there are plenty of parts of the country where these chains (at least Dollar Tree and Dollar General plus a couple of others) are not signs of poor, run-down areas.

3. How does one Whole Foods 'create' more jobs than a half dozen smaller stores?

4. Jobs are a cost, not a benefit.

If you think a Costco or Whole Foods is suddenly going to open a store in Bessemer, Alabama because they no longer have to compete with the Dollar Tree, you are delusional.

But why do they "want" this? Lack of resources, lack of education, lack of time and energy? Libertarians would be well advised to look a bit deeper than the surface level of so called free will.

Because junk food is tasty?


Sometimes the simple answer really is the answer.

Progressives would do well to look at the outcome of things like soda taxes in Philly, which just pushed soda sales to neighboring munis. Banning something doesn't change people's lifestyles.

It's what Arnold Kling refers to as FOOL- Fear Of Others' Liberty. If people are allowed to make choices, they may make a choice that you disagree with.

Private choices have public consequences. Sorry brah.

Right, and just wait until the 'public' is providing for everybody's health care and therefore naturally feels entitled to police any private choices that might have adverse health outcomes (especially the kinds of choices made by lower-class people). Just spitballing here, but I wonder if it would be possible to re-purpose the technology in parolee ankle tethers to use as mandatory step counters?

They only have public consequences because the same people that insist on controlling your choices have demanded that they be billed for those consequences - and then they use that billing as justification for demanding to be able to control your choices.

I didn't ask them to bear those burdens and would, frankly, like them to fuck off. I'm certainly not going to allow them to use their own busybodyness as reason to interfere more.

Dollar stores and other powerful chains use their purchasing power to obtain obscene bulk pricing from suppliers, systematically driving local competitors out of business. This practice used to be considered illegal monopoly behavior. Access to capital markets is the prime determinant of success in America today.

Give an example of when a business operating at scale is being considered "illegal monopoly behavior". At what point is good supply management considered anti-competitive? I missed this day in history class.

Our memory of corporate misbehavior doesn’t seem to stretch beyond 1980 or so.


The use of the adjective "obscene" is a fairly reliable tip-off that a comment is based on visceral dislike for something, rather than a thoughtful analysis of it.

Using "purchasing power to obtain obscene bulk pricing from suppliers" would be monopsony behavior.

"Dollar stores and other powerful chains use their purchasing power to obtain obscene bulk pricing from suppliers, systematically driving local competitors out of business."


"This practice used to be considered illegal monopoly behavior."

No, it never has. Because you can't actually 'corner a market this way'. In order to drive competitors out you must increase your efficiency to such an extent that you can undercut their prices for longer than they can endure - which is beneficial to the consumer. Then you must maintain those prices - which is beneficial to the consumer - because if you try to raise them you will create profit opportunities incentivizing less-efficient firms to move back into that sector, competing with you and forcing you to drive your prices back down - which is beneficial to the consumer.

The only time monopolies are *harmful* is when backed by violence - such as being government-granted monopolies.

"Access to capital markets is the prime determinant of success in America today."

Everyone has access to capital markets. Save up some money - now you have capital. Go to the bank and take out a business loan - now you have capital.

Look up the Robinson-Patman Act.
Monopoly (and monopsony) power is half the reason why these depressed rural areas are the way they are in the first place. Some financier rolls into town with gobs of hot money, purchases the local factory, strips the customer base and real estate and fires the entire workforce. Whatever income stream left associated with the gutted company now accrues to the benefit of some private equity fund in New York.

The Matthew principle applies here—to the rich, everything will be given, and from the poor, everything will be taken away. If the rich man’s “superior supply chain management” results in him being able to undercut the entire market due to lower supply costs, he will inevitably come to dominate the field. All profits in that market will be directed to his office in New York, to the unfortunate detriment of the denizens of Youngstown, Ohio who have lost an income stream, a workforce and community leaders. But if you’re of the camp who arrogantly believe that those who live in coastal areas are inherently superior to the unwashed masses of the heartland, then this argument will fall flat. After all, the monopolists are much smarter, because they have the genius to negotiate supplier discounts.

We have a "health star rating" system in Australia. It is currently voluntary. It definitely needs improvement as I have seem chips, or french fries as you Americans call them, with the maximum rating of 5 stars. (Possibly because they count as vegetables.) Once it's fixed, it will at least be something. Not as good as my plan of requiring half the packaging on nutritionally poor food to say, "If you eat this you're a bloody idiot," with the warning shrinking in size if the food quality improves.

Relying on people to chose correctly based on stars is an iffy way to improve the quality of food eaten, but giving manufacturers an incentive to get valuable packaging space back would be a sure fire hit.

So this seems like a reasonable policy, but in the US, we've had decades of nutritional advice from the US government that seems to have been probably wrong (and not based on much in the way of evidence) and also heavily influenced by industry groups. So I have some concerns about how the implementation would work out in the US.

The reference to the supposed quote of Marie-Antoinette is funny and spot-on.

Dollar-stores are not drug-dens or erotic peep-shows. They are well maintained stores, that profitably serve the need of individuals in the lower-middle class that live where they open their stores.

To say that their presence sustains poverty because makes the neighborhood to seem run-down, it’s like to say that a soup-kitchen close to a homeless encampment is the reason why the homeless exist.

The hypocritical arrogance of these people is staggering. The fact that they seem to have the power of make it happen is terrifying, worth of Atlas Shrugged, as Alex Tabarrok recently pointed regarding Zuckerberg Orwellian roasting in Congress.

It's like some SJW accidentally drove through the ghetto (thanks Google Maps), saw a couple of dollar stores and came to the conclusion that the dollar stores must have caused all that icky poverty. It certainly couldn't be caused by anything systemic to which they were actively contributing.

I think it's more that a *new* dollar store confirms the middle-class rut of the property.

If you're a central planner, you'd like the space to be derelict, so that you can cut a deal with a developer and raze the place. Or you'd like it to be valuable and attracting rich people. But a Dollar Store means this area won't be growing or declining. It's a lost cause for redevelopers and the city councils run by them.

"Dollar-stores are not drug-dens or erotic peep-shows."

Why aren't they? And please be specific: what principle accommodates both, "Peep shows are an evil that may be regulated" and "Dollar stores are unremarkable and should remain unrestrained"?

They made a South Park episode like this once. They priced Kenny out of his own neighborhood by insisting whole foods will boost property values.


Yep, good episode.

"Combatting the ill effects of a bad diet involves educating people to change their eating habits."

Yes, but it takes more. I know how to eat well but I don't. I try but fail. Genetics? Psychological factors? Many people are in the same boat and the medical community doesn't have a handle on it.

Counting calories and doing intermittent fasting (I usually only eat during about a six-hour window) worked pretty well for me.

I'm always amazed at what I can eat in six hours

Probably a combo of the fact that unhealthy food both tastes better and is more convenient than healthier foods. It’s not supernatural.

What fraction of the exercise and eating habits of the elite is motivated by the need to signal that they are of the elite?

My low country affluent neighborhood went nuts when a dollar store was proposed for the neighborhood. I suspect it's the association they have with a declining neighborhood, but it's definitely not because only poor people shop there (since there are so few in the area). Here's my conjecture: Grocery stores have very small margins, and depend on high markups for the type of products that are sold in dollar stores. If affluent customers at a full service grocery such as Whole Foods buy only low (or negative) margin products there and high margin products at the dollar store (priced lower at the dollar store because the dollar store doesn't sell the items that the full service store sells at a loss), the equilibrium that makes full service grocery stores possible is upset.

My affluent college-town neighborhood has a Whole Foods at its southern boundary and there's a Dollar Tree in a strip that's maybe a 1/3 of a mile down on the other side of the main road. In the same area is a Kroger, a Trader Joe's, and an Indian grocery. It doesn't seem to be a problem having them all operate near each other. And none of the folks in the affluent neighborhood went nuts over the Dollar Tree (I'm not sure how many were aware that it opened or even know it's tucked in there).

Slocum, Boulder?

Probably Ann Arbor.

I sort of understand why Amazon bought Whole Foods but I don't understand why Apollo Management bought Fresh Market, the other high end (overpriced) grocery store chain. Maybe another reader can enlighten me. I did a build to suit for Fresh Market back when it was still a family-owned business based in Greensboro, NC. They were not the easiest to deal with. My client (the landlord) later sold the store to an investor, Fresh Market at the time considered an excellent tenant in a single tenant building. I'm not so sure that's the case anymore. Charleston has both a FM and a WF in the West Ashley area where I shop when I am in Charleston, and I've shopped in both of them. FM is a relatively small store, whereas WF is like a super market. My nephew, a foodie, prefer WF while I prefer FM. My nephew is the WF nightmare: he buys the low or negative margin items at WF and the high margin items at Publix or Harris Teeter (where those items are priced lower than at WF). Whether my nephew shops at a dollar store for those items when I'm not around is unclear.

There are negative margin items sold at Whole Foods?!?

There are negative margin items sold everywhere.

The pervasive belief among progressives in various magical Cargo Cults explains much of this.

If only a Whole Foods popped into existence in a poor area, the inhabitants would immediately be lining up to buy kale instead of Twinkies.

If only a person is given a piece of paper saying they are a college graduate, they become middle class.

If only ...

If only the government would get out of the way, the magic of the invisible hand would be allowed to solve all of our problems.

At least there’s economic proof for Smithian practices.

Under market conditions only occasionally approximated by reality.

Which is still better than the results from command economies.

Considering that free-market economies have seen a larger increase in global quality of life over the last 200 years than in all of previous human history and command economies have seen . . . mostly murder on an industrial scale.

The invisible hand is more about giving you what you want, not giving what you want to everyone else, which is none of your business anyways.

Do they have evidence for their claims that dollar stores drive out other grocery stores? In my city, there are four dollar stores within one mile of the Whole Foods. I’m pretty sure those chains are going for mostly different markets.

Are the dollar stores competing with grocery stores? The ones I've been in look more like they are competing with Walmart: a one-stop place to get a variety of relatively cheap goods. You don't go to Dollar General to buy fresh fruit or electronics you expect to use for a long time; you go there to buy snacks and cheap stuff that you know isn't going to last long (that's not a bad thing--sometimes you only need it for a short while).

The ironic thing is that my wife and I both routinely shop at both Dollar General and Publix (a regional grocery store chain). They compliment each other in our lives. We do a Publix run once a week, and go to Dollar General for quick "We need X for dinner tonight" shopping.

In my little two-stoplight town, there is the local grocery store (used to be two, literally, right next to each other - owned by the same guy - but he consolidated them into one) and a Dollar General a half mile down the road. And four convenience stores - all within a 2 mile stretch of road.

Everyone seems to be making money.

Dollar Stores accept Food Stamps.

The solution is:

Any store which accepts Food Stamps must have some fruits and vegetables,

Other than Ketchup..

I have a proposal: Since dollar stores are evil and exploitative, I think we should instead encourage a store that is famous for bargaining their suppliers down to very low prices and then passing them on to consumers--Wal Mart. Let them place a grocery store inside the Wal Mart, so there's no food desert concern.

I'm sure the NIMBY brigade will have no problems with that, so we're good. Right?

Dollar Tree is a dollar store.
Dollar General is not a Dollar Store.
Is the article grossly inaccurate in other ways?

Because the physical health of poor people might be as well (better?) served by providing them with access to free veterinary medicine (little danger of inadvertent opioid addiction there), we might strive for FDA approval to feed the poor with amply-filling and nutritious pet food.

These moves might then enhance the prospects of legal reforms that would permit the well-to-do to adopt the poor as pets, so that the children of the well-to-do can learn to master the responsible tasks of cleaning and grooming the poor in their kennels and stables, feeding them, getting them their shots, et cetera.

If I want cheap frozen vegetables I always drive to the dollar tree in the most ghetto area of town, they are guaranteed to have a fully stocked freezer. The Dollar Tree down the street in my working class neighborhood is always sold out. I wonder why?

You just made that up, didn't you?

"dollar stores... sustain poverty by making neighborhoods seem run-down"

Wouldn't making the neighborhood seem run-down actually alleviate poverty? It would reduce real estate prices, making the area more affordable to low-income people.

Being a bit run-down and dodgy is the only way that neighborhoods in otherwise convenient locations can remain affordable. If they become nice and safe, they get expensive.

That concern about dollar stores making the neighborhood seem rundown is an interesting contrast with the outrage expressed by Baltimore pols when an outsider came in and did a garbage clean up day.

I'm not even sure what the distinction is between the "dollar" stores and the thousands of so-called convenience stores that dot the landscape -- e.g. L'il General. Suwanee Swifty and of course 7-Eleven. Often linked to a gas station but not always. Why do the dollar stores inspire so much more disdain?

These "convenients" basically sell beer, cigs, soda and chips along with lotto tickets and the infamous "roller foods." Just try to find any veggies alongside the Hostess Ho-Hos and Little Debbies. But it's acknowledged that they perform a vital public service -- especially the restroom!

That smaller, darker hot dog way in the back has been on the rollers since '91.

Are you talking about the restroom or the roller grill?

The grill between the rack of corn nuts and the Seattle's Best coffee. Any hot dog in the bathroom would have been eaten. By rodents.

The Dollar Store (Dollar Tree) has a large variety of products. Paper plates, party supplies, candy, frozen veggies and frozen side dishes, kitchen supplies (utensils, bowls, spatulas, cheese graters, on and on...), towels, wash cloths, socks, dry pasta, soap (laundry, dish, hand), glue, pens, pencils, index cards, lemon heads, light bulbs, toilet paper, paper towels... 1000's of different items of hit or miss quality, and they are all $1.00 each. Exactly, to the penny, everything is one dollar.
Dollar Generals are small grocery store/variety store with a smallish selection of perfectly normal grocery items (save for fresh meats and fruits/veggies) that are priced very reasonably. Not as cheap as Walmart, but much cheaper than a convenience store/gas station. They also have household items of higher (not as low) and more consistent quality than a Dollar Store.
Anybody, rich or poor, would buy a barely satisfactory roll of TP in a dollar store as a matter of urgency. A low income person would buy all their TP in a Dollar General ($5 for a medium quality ~12 pack). A $1 bar of soap from a Dollar Store would last a couple weeks. A $2.50 pack of 3-5 bars of soap from a Dollar General would last a month or two.
A Dollar General has many named brand products. A Dollar Tree has few named brand products (especially foodstuffs).

I concede I've never been inside a dollar store - like, I expect, T.C. - and for me they function as a marker that I'm out of place. Be Somewhere Else. Since my attitude stems not from compassion for anybody, I am surprised they've become the bugaboo of progressives versus the myriad other places that inspire the same disdain from me.

All these vape stores: that's what you want to map now, for when you're trying to understand the division of America 20 years from now. The vape store is why I didn't buy your house even though you did such a nice job with the flip work. I loved the floating shelves!

I raid the local Dollar Tree once a year when looking for cheap, goofy little stocking stuffers. It's perfect for that. When I'm there, I like to peruse the $1 remaindered books (and try to imagine the authors' reactions)

The level of economic division and status anxiety in other places is surprising to me. I took me just a minute to find a million dollar house in my neighborhood that's maybe 1000 feet from a vape shop just across the main road (which is also not far from a Whole Foods and a Dollar Tree).

It's an aesthetic thing, really, than which there is nothing more important except for lunch (and for me, the dollar and the vape stores don't have anything I could ever require, vis-a-vis lunch). Aesthetics are also a proxy for the probably fruitless search for "my people," with my values. But status doesn't come into play, at least at this late date.

The issue isn't about property values or healthful eating, it's really all about personal self-image. Some of the residents of areas where this controversy occurs have an upper-middle class picture of themselves and the place where they live. Just as they religiously mow their lawns and maintain the paint on their homes, they want the rest of their neighborhood to visually reflect their values. When guests come to visit they don't want them to run a gauntlet of budget c-stores or panhandlers or any of the other optical outrages of the modern world. The place has to look nice, even if, as was the case with Liz Taylor, it's not so good on the inside.

Maybe the real story is that one of the Dollar stores is trying to keep a rival out of the market by proposing limits on new Dollar stores.

The incumbent's advantage.

1. The Center for Science in the Public Interest is not a center for science in the public interest. It's a vegan activist group.

2. Dekalb County GA is working hard to become another one of those progressive dominated places that middle and low income people cannot afford. They've succeeded in parts.

3. Stores will sell customers exactly what they want to buy. Open a store selling your plant-based CSPI-approved ingredients in crummy neighborhood in Birmingham and see how long you stay in business.

"undercutting other retailers"

What other retailers? Like the Korean-owned grocery stories and Indian-owned convenience stores that locals also complain about?

The Dollar General moved into my home town only after the last grocery store moved out. They may compete with the local pharmacy (which sells a small selection of cheap goods as well as medicines), but let's face it, the pharmacy has a pretty good selling point regardless.

There's also a Dollar General just down the street from a Publix near one of my jobsites. Both seem to be routinely busy. Often customers buy from both. I don't see either going out of business anytime soon.

CSPI says something is bad, and my immediate - and always correct - intuition is that it's good.

Their science isn't, and their "public interest" isn't either.

People don't WANT to eat green leafy vegetables. They don't WANT to eat lots. of healthy fresh fruit.

They WANT to eat junk food.

Revealed preferences tell us a lot.

If you want to replace Dollar Stores with green grocers, you need to change the fundamental food preferences of tens of millions of people. Good luck!

Evil capitalists are responsible for dictating people's food preferences, be it processed foods at the Dollar Store or unprocessed foods at Whole Foods. All that needs to be done is to implement socialism and everyone (except for the apparatchiks) will be on the verge of starvation. Problem solved!

The Thiel pro-monopolistic position would lend support to these lawmakers who want to avoid low-institution / low-state-capacity retailers from gaining an entrenched position that prevents better paths from being chosen.

TIL that only poor people shop at dollar stores and only rich, affluent people shop at Whole Foods. Man, people will turn literally anything into a status symbol of some kind.

Realtors can no longer tell you where the good and bad neighborhoods are, but a map of all the Whole Foods also shows the good neighborhoods, and the Walmarts map the less affluent places.

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