A man picking a food item off the shelf in a dollar store.

Are Dollar Store Groceries Really All That Bad?

It's the same food that the supermarket sells, so why the stigma?
August 12, 2020
9 mins read

We all eat. We have to sustain ourselves with food regularly, and the food we put in our bodies matters. Whether health nuts or just average eaters, people don’t eat just anything. It’s not likely someone throws together their breakfast from the litter on the on-ramp of a highway. Dinner is not usually prepared from the food pulled out of a clogged drain. Where do we get our food then?

Not an easy answer. The majority probably thinks of a supermarket or a regular-sized grocery store. Some think of local grocery stores. Others a farmers market. Some people only think of what’s in their backyard.

What about a dollar store? Is that a place for food?

Stocking up for meals at a dollar store might sound unfathomable or outlandish to some, but for others it’s commonplace. Shopping at the nearest dollar store can be the only option some shoppers have, whether due to locality or finances. The grocery store could be as short as a block from a person’s apartment in certain highly populated areas, but in rural communities and food deserts, a grocery store can be up to tens of miles away — not ideal or practical when it comes to buying food.

If someone happens to be in proximity to both a dollar store and a grocery store, would anyone really choose the dollar store? Aren’t the products at the dollar store questionable in general without even mentioning the food? Dollar-store food garners an unfavorable reaction with stigmas such as expired products, a selection limited to junk food, and few items larger than snack-sized. But these notions simply aren’t true.

Dollar stores don’t sell expired food. Okay, sometimes they do. But supermarkets have also sold expired food. Stores are managed by people and are bound to have a few mishaps. Leaving a product on the shelf past its expiration date happens in dollar stores and grocery stores alike. When buying food, it’s important to look at the product’s expiration date before purchasing regardless of the location. Besides, expiration dates are arbitrary to begin with.

Food quality in dollar stores throughout the U.S. is assured by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and it regulates dollar store food with the same standards it evaluates the food at your favorite grocer. FDA standards are not foolproof measures of what to ingest though (see FDA rules), but if it puts consumers’ minds at ease in one location, it should do so at every location. Don’t discount the dollar store as a grocery option based on the misconception of a higher probability of inedible food.

Dollar stores can also be the place to shop for healthy options as well. Now, it’s not likely you will find 100% organic products or the plethora of vegan alternatives found in major stores. There is more than just the endless amount of chips and candy, though. Dollar stores are great for whole foods and the building blocks of healthy meals. A blogger even tested this out with a week of healthy meals created solely from dollar-store purchases.

Dollar stores won’t have the produce section of the local market and certainly not one comparable to a farmers market. That isn’t to say fresh fruits and vegetables don’t line the aisles of dollar stores. Certain dollar stores are experimenting with stocking fresh produce. The coveted morning avocado toast or smoothie-bowl lunch may be doable from shopping at a dollar store near you — if not now, then maybe in the future.

Even without the fresh produce, there are many healthy finds. Dollar stores stock national brands (seriously) and their own private labels for various nutritious options. The classic Quaker Oats can be found at dollar stores and can be paired with Jif Natural Peanut Butter for less than its grocery store price tag.

Straying away from name brands doesn’t equate to falling from a health standard though. The store brands often come with fewer additives or chemicals. Spend some time to truly look at nutrition labels in the dollar store and you may find that the food may be healthier than originally assumed. Skip past the junk food (because there will be plenty of it) and find that healthy and cheap score!

Just be mindful that it truly is a score. Sometimes it’s not about finding the most bang for your buck; it’s just about lasting until payday. The dollar store can be a great option to make food stretch those last few days. For those fortunate enough to maximize their spending, the dollar store may not be the right place. It’s all about the numbers.

Smaller sizing is partially true. Dollar stores work with supply companies to stock their shelves. In order to maintain profits for both the dollar stores and their suppliers, tactics have to be employed to adjust for the lower selling price. One trick of the trade is for supply companies to tailor-make smaller sizes for dollar stores. Other cost-saving efforts include direct shipments to the dollar stores and specified product placement within the store step-up.

Price management doesn’t stop with the supply chain though. Dollar stores have other financial practices to keep their tried and true $1 products, such as hiring fewer employees. A major cost combatant is incorporating private labels. Dollar stores place name brands on the shelves for specific consumers but heavily push their own brands to the larger customer base. Keeping products within the company saves money by cutting out middle men, adapting from the already-researched formulas conducted by the name brands and doing without the expensive advertisements.

A far less savory method of making profit is targeting lower-income and Black neighborhoods. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance published a report finding that dollar stores target poor and Black people when finding their newest location. Not only does it prey upon marginalized people, but it can even lead to the perpetuation of poverty within communities and eradicate local businesses and major grocery stores alike.

Shopping at the dollar store may have a question of ethics to it. If the option is available, it may be better to opt for the grocery store or a local grocer or farmer. Buying in bulk rather than smaller sizes is also an alternative if regular shopping is too inconvenient. Shopping in bulk or even at the supermarket could actually result in a cheaper bill. The dollar store may sell a can of vegetables for $1, but a standard grocery store could sell cans for 60 cents. It boils down to a case-by-case basis and careful research.

Buying food is a necessary and nuanced part of life. Where to buy food is up to each consumer, whether that be a grocery store, a farmers market or anywhere else. What works best for one person may not be suitable for the next. It’s important to find the right fit for you, and that may just be the dollar store. Don’t knock it until you try it.

Katie Klear, Columbia College Chicago

Writer Profile

Katie Klear

Columbia College Chicago
Creative Writing and Filmmaking

Katie Klear is a writer pursuing a Creative Writing degree from Columbia College Chicago. She’s a Creative Writing graduate from the Kentucky’s Governor’s School for the Arts program. Her love for people fuels her prose.

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