Please Shut Up Now about How Awful It Is to Buy Food at Dollar General
And start advocating to get better food into them the way Dollar General needs it: affordable and shelf-stable
In 2011 I got exposed to the concept of the fortune to be made at the bottom of the pyramid, which is, in short, that there are more poor people than rich people in the world, and that poor people need and want stuff, too. They just can’t afford to buy as much stuff or as often.
The case in the example that really stuck with me is about shampoo and people living on a dollar a day. Dollar-a-day folks in the world rarely have enough money together to buy a whole bottle of shampoo, yet, every couple of weeks they could buy a single serving in a small packet (yes, I thought, or pool their money for a bottle, but I digress). Thus, one could make a fortune selling to poorer folks only if business would pay attention and give poorer folks what they need how and where they need it.
While I have problems with the environmental sustainability of individual packets of small batch stuff (and that can be solved with recyclable and biodegradable packaging), I get the need to buy only a little bit of something because you can’t afford to buy the more economical super Costco or Walmart size of it. That is most of us in America.
Dollar General thrives on this bottom of the pyramid model American style — going where most retailers don’t want to go and selling whatever size or quality of product most folks in the United States can afford. Dollar General is the DG for the rest of us: not Dolce Gabbana.
Fast forward to this week where I learned that in 2018 as part of a grant aimed at healthier eating in underserved communities a gaggle of landgrant universities asked Dollar General to please start selling fresh produce at their regular stores (as you may or may not know, Dollar General also has a grocery store line but those are few and far between) and Dollar General said no. Then these landgrants asked the Centers for Disease Control to ask Dollar General to start selling fresh produce and the CDC did not.
Before you say, oh, evil DG, understand that fresh is not what DG does. It is also often not what a majority of its customers in food deserts (places without many options to buy food) want or need. Hear me out here.
In McDowell County, West Virginia where a group of us are set to open a retail store later this year selling local and regional food and other products, that county of 500+ square miles has less than three grocery stores. Walmart closed up shop there in 2016, leaving many people to travel more than 30 miles to the grocery store to neighboring counties to get food. If and when folks do go to Walmart in those counties, they often have to get food to last them a month.
People who are poor often lose their cars, and they rely on other people to take them to the store. There is one bus headed west once a day through McDowell County and one bus headed east. If you have kids or are disabled or elderly, you aren’t taking the bus to the neighboring counties to grocery shop. If you do want broader choices than what is on hand right down the road, you get a ride or pay for one.
If you don’t have a car, you may also not have a refrigerator at home much less a freezer. Or even a decent place to cook food. The best you may be able to do is to open a can, cook something on an electric eye or in a small microwave, or open a bag.
In rural and urban food deserts, DG sells shelf-stable food to people who need their food not to rot until they are ready to eat it whether this week or three weeks from now or four months from now.
Here is also another kicker. Even IF Dollar General started selling fresh produce, then what Dollar General would sell would still benefit mega offshore (that is, producers far from the location where the store is located) producers in only a couple of states (California and Iowa top that list domestically) more than the communities Dollar Generals sit in because of this next point I am going to make.
Big Ag blocks (with lobbyists, the Farm Bill, through strong-arming) much small ag from being sold in chain grocery stores.
They push smaller producers off into farmers markets where we gaze at our navels rather than come together to demand to be sold where the rest of everyone beyond foodies actually buys most food: in chain stores.
Here is my evidence.
In summer 2017, sitting in the produce manager’s office of a large grocery store chain in our region (Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia, Tennessee) the very pleasant man explained to us that he could not sell our cooperative’s greens because he would run the risk of losing his mega corporate supplier out of California.
He echoed what a farmer colleague of ours got the year before out of Whole Foods when trying to get his awesome high quality limited batch popcorn into the Winston-Salem, NC branch. You need to produce tons of XYZ before we can sell your product because the big suppliers will stop selling XYZ to us if we take a break. And our customers expect to always be able to find you on the shelf, so step aside, and let the big boys in (I paraphrase).
Added to this, just a couple of years before that (2014) I had gotten into an argument with one of the top people in agriculture at the state level in North Carolina. I argued that small producers should highlight that our products vary by season, by the kind of soil they grow in, by the forage our animals eat.
We small producers ought to brag that our products are more like wine and reflect the “terroir” that large batch commercial operations can’t match.
I argued on that differentiation was exactly the smaller producers’ selling point — we are not bland and can be full of great surprises.
This higher up argued with me that more than anything else consumers want consistency…I argued back, she was not following the Food Network inspired food trends. She was la-la-la-ing, I can’t hear you the tastes of the millennial markets. She was saying consumers can’t and don’t learn.
I argued back that consumers eat what they are educated to eat and media, marketing, their friends, their families, their culture, and so on accomplish this.
Fast forward to the last couple of months.
My husband and I rarely eat out because frankly, we know too much about how most mega company-sourced food is produced and that only ten companies total supply most food to most of every kind of restaurant.
Yet, on a rare Saturday evening away from the farm, we accidentally ate at a foodie spot, Kindred, in Davidson, North Carolina, where the chef is originally from Tennessee with a hillbilly (understand that I am originally from West Virginia, so this is an accolade, not at all pejorative) mama from Alabama. When he learned we were farmers, he came out of the kitchen to talk to us…to talk about how he LOOKS for very different product and really focuses on texture. By the way, he almost won a James Beard award a couple of years ago.
Last week I sat in a training in a room packed full of North Carolina cattle producers interested in grazing their cattle and other ruminants (like sheep) on grass, and this one farmer spoke about his farm in Rowan County, a little north of Charlotte — how if you had told him in the early 1980s when he got started that a chef from Raleigh would come some day to his farm to see the actual lambs he would be serving in a couple of weeks and videotape them, he would have laughed in your face.
That woman at the top in North Carolina Ag has it wrong and the Big Ag players know it. Smaller producers produce better tasting, healthier, more interesting food that everyone deserves to eat, even if folks only get to savor a little bit of it now and again.
We Need to Dollar Generalize Healthy Food
Let me keep connecting these dots for you.
Again, let me shout: people at the bottom of the pyramid also want and need stuff!
Most stuff is not sold at farmers markets.
In 2014 I ran a bunch of small farmer focus groups and what I was told was, well, folks report to us that they like shopping at Whole Foods rather than farmers markets because they can buy way more of what they need there: fish, shoes, cookies, blah blah blah.
I get that. Most of us working people only have limited time and we need to go places where we can get most of our needs met. If we got a little more money and access, we go to Whole Foods, and if not, then Dollar General.
Next dot. Small producers need places to sell their local products all year round in enough volume to make a real sustainable income.
Small producers also need a whole bunch more infrastructure investment to be competitive to help them convert their food into affordable, shelf-stable products, which I outline in this tediously long list of policy suggestions that only two of you reading this will click through to read.
In the last five years, two Dollar Generals have opened up within ten minutes of where my husband and I farm. Before that, we had to drive 20 minutes into a local town if we needed anything that the local Ace Hardware or gas station did not sell.
In one of these DGs the other day I noticed the large table near the front scattered with the remains of highly reduced holiday items.
Dollar General for sure would get a higher return from a table full of local products packaged to last (for example, shelf-stable freeze-dried pea snaps rather than peas, or dried apples rather than fresh apples) than they would from it being full of discounted holiday items sold at 75% off.
I could run these numbers for them. I could show them this.
A whole bunch of us need to come together and show them this.
Know what else? The products on that DG holiday discount table change every season, and the people who walk into DG are smart enough to get that the stuff on that table up front changes often. They even expect it at this point.
The people who shop at DG also watch TV somewhere. They probably also have watched the Food Network at some point, maybe at a doctor’s office or over at a friend’s. The people at DG would buy what we sell, if we sell it at a price they can afford. We need to work together on this model in the sustainable ag movement so everyone can afford to buy our better tasting healthier food!
In the meantime, as consumers, advocates, and producers we also have to make the big players keep selling to Dollar General, regional supermarket chains, and Whole Foods as these places also start to put up a table or a shelf of diverse shelf-stable sustainable seasonally changing products/small batch products from small producers.
The big players have to stop holding hostage the sellers where most of America buys its food.
Here is a sample sketch of what that small batch producer booth/shelf/could contain. Add lots more stuff to it. Make the portions small. Make the packaging biodegradable to make sure it gets out of the waste stream.
And, if this all won’t work where you are, then open a retail store that sells small batch limited run stuff from ethical sustainable producers.
We are opening Mountain Farm store in late 2019 in the deep coalfields of Appalachia, because we need Dollar General to sell healthier food with more nutrition and we also need to do it, too, because damnit, there are just not enough places to buy food where we work and live. Period. There is room for us and DG and Save-A-Lot and the local chains because people shouldn’t have to bum a ride to travel 30 miles to buy something besides pop-top food from a convenience store.
So, again, stop bitching about Dollar General and get involved to figure this out.
Get in touch and we’ll do it with you.