Dollar stores replace grocery stores in low-income Black communities at alarming rates, one town is fighting the surge
According to the Institue for Self-Reliance, a community located on the north side of Tulsa, Oklahoma is looking to push dollar stores (Dollar General, Dollar Tree and Family Dollar) out of their community. At present, the stores have over 50 locations in North Tulsa alone, and while this predominantly Black portion of Tulsa goes on for several miles, there is not one full-service grocery store. This means that the dollar stores become de-facto grocery stores for poor, Black communities, despite having very meager grocery options, such as canned peaches, cereal, and processed foods.
Vanessa Hall-Harper, a resident of North Tulsa and City Councilor who ran and won on a platform of food insecurity told the Institute, “I don’t think it’s an accident they proliferate in low socio-economic and African American communities… That proliferation makes it more difficult for the full-service, healthy stores to set up shop, and operate successfully.”
According to the sources of the Institute’s report, dollar stores are not just a symptom of economic distress, the prevalence of dollar stores in communities like North Tulsa actually compound the conditions that create food deserts by making full-service grocery stores close. Their strategy is to open up multiple outlets in majority Black communities, with a chart in the Institute‘s report showing how extensive their heavy presence in Black communities is, especially in Tulsa.
These conditions did not originate in a vacuum, as they are the natural extension of Wal-Mart’s practices of building massive “Supercenters” in larger towns, which allowed them to attract customers from a wide radius. Most smaller town “Mom and Pop” stores were thus forced to shutter. While a few remained open, their conditions made it easier for dollar stores to swoop in and force them to close.
Ann Natunewicz, analyst at Colliers International told the Institute, “Food deserts’ are (Family Dollar’s) sweet spot,” with the publication connecting this issue with the historical anti-Blackness of banks that tend not to issue loans to Black entrepreneurs and grocery store chains to set up shop in Black neighborhoods. As Hall-Harper told the Institute, “There has been a documented 14-year life expectancy gap between North Tulsa and South Tulsa,” explaining that the gap points to “the situation and environment, and how these systemic issues work.”
Hall-Harper convinced City Council to enact an ordinance that limits dollar stores on Tulsa’s Northside and encourages the development of full-service grocery stores instead. This is the first bit of legislation that specifically targets dollar stores and its passage has marked the creation of a new era of political and grassroots power for Black residents of Tulsa. It has also galvanized national attention on the spread of dollar stores and what they are doing to low-income and Black communities across the nation.
As for her choice to push her City Council to target dollar stores specifically, Hall-Harper told the Institue, “I was told, ‘That is illegal, we can’t do that.’ But fortunately, I had done my research… Communities have the authority, and in my opinion, the responsibility, to put these policies in place.” Hall-Haper continued, “One grocery store isn’t enough… Reaching every citizen is how I’ll know we were successful, the proliferation of dollar stores certainly has made that a challenge to overcome.”