Sara Imperiale and Margaret Brown
On May 29, 2019, a delegation from the Campaign for Healthier Solutions’ non-toxic dollar stores project attended the annual Dollar General shareholder meeting in Goodlettsville, Tennessee. We were there to insist that Dollar General phase out toxic chemicals from its consumer products and source locally grown, fresh produce to better protect the health of their consumers, workers, and frontline communities. With more than 15,000 stores, Dollar General is the largest retail chain in the United States and more than 75 percent of people in this country live within five miles of a store.
NRDC works within the Campaign for Healthier Solutions, a project of the Environmental Justice Health Alliance and Coming Clean, to provide legal and technical support that enables the campaign’s frontline experts to pursue community-driven solutions to advance a healthy, sustainable, and just food system—including getting locally and sustainably-grown produce into dollar stores across the United States.
This work is essential. We know one in eight people in this country live in a food insecure household, which means a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle. Rates of food insecurity are highest for some of the most vulnerable segments of the population, including households with incomes near or below the federal poverty line, all homes with children and particularly those headed by a single guardian, and Black and Latino-headed households. Further, people living in food insecure homes are disproportionately affected by diet-sensitive chronic diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure. This is particularly devastating for the more than 12 million children represented by those statistics because not having enough healthy food can have serious implications for future physical and mental health. Many of these same folks serve us through their work within the food system while bearing the disproportionate burdens of its inequities.
And these cumulative burdens are not limited to diet-specific conditions. In fact, a recent report from Coming Clean and EJHA that studied nine environmental justice communities found the most vulnerable neighborhoods – areas that are both low-income and with low access to healthy foods – have higher cancer and respiratory condition risk from nearby facilities emitting toxic air pollution and other sources.
The connection to dollar stores is clear. Many chains operate in intentionally food-deprived areas, like rural communities and low-income communities of color, and nearly half of dollar store sales come from customers on public assistance. Approximately 40 percent of dollar stores sales are of food – most of which is highly processed with low nutritional quality and creates additional concerns for toxic chemicals in food packaging.
Dollar General recently announced that it will be selling fresh produce in 450 of its stores, with the goal of reaching 5,000 stores eventually. However, initiatives to address disparities in healthy food access must meaningfully involve members of the community, ensure culturally appropriate options, and increase local power and wealth in our food system. Only by bringing the community to the table and investing in the local economy can we truly make progress getting households fresh food they want and can afford.
To that end, the Campaign for Healthier Solutions has asked Dollar General to broaden its fresh produce initiative to include sourcing local, sustainably grown foods that keeps wealth in the community, starting with a four-store pilot project in the South Valley of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The South Valley is the base of operations for the Agri-Cultura Network, a farmer-owned cooperative that works to provide access to local and sustainably grown produce and spur local economic development. Agri-Cultura Network and its network of more than 30 farms use traditional and innovative agricultural practices to improve environmental and community stewardship and strengthen the agrarian and cultural heritage of their land and its residents.
At the shareholder meeting, the Co-Director of Agri-Cultura Network, Helga Garcia-Garza, secured a commitment from Dollar General CEO Todd Vasos to send a representative to Albuquerque to meet with Agri-Cultura Network and its farmers. This region is ripe for this type of project, because with the prevalence of food insecurity varying considerably from state to state, it’s a nationwide high of nearly 18 percent in New Mexico. Additionally, New Mexico’s Double Up Food Bucks program allows those using food assistance to double their money when they buy New Mexico-grown fruits and vegetables at qualifying farmers’ markets, grocery stores, and other outlets. This could mean more fresh fruits and vegetables for South Valley residents, more money staying in the local community, and more revenue for Dollar General.
Sara Imperiale, NRDC Senior Attorney, Environmental Justice, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program.
Margaret Brown, NRDC Senior Attorney, NY Regional, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program