Food deserts are areas where people don’t have access to healthy food options within a five-mile radius of their homes. Highland Hills and plenty of other Dallas communities are considered food deserts.
But these parts of town do have an abundance of another kind business: discount stores, which don't typically provide healthy food options to the communities they serve. The city is looking into regulating these businesses to help bring more fresh food options to communities that have historically lacked them.
Other North Texas cities like Fort Worth and Mesquite have regulated dollar stores in hopes of expanding access to fresh food and addressing the concentration of these stores in low-income communities. Cities outside of Texas — such as Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Birmingham, Alabama — have also regulated these businesses with the same goals in mind.
The idea is to either get these stores to carry more food options, or break up the concentration of them in communities, encouraging grocery stores to move in.
Dallas city staff looked at these cities’ ordinances while planning how to move forward on something similar. They presented some of their findings to members of the Quality of Life Committee at a meeting last month. Last night, community discussion about further regulating dollar stores was also hosted by City Council member Casey Thomas, who has been one of the driving forces behind these discussions.
According to city staff, these ordinances typically set distance requirements between dollar stores and require a certain amount of the stock to be fresh and frozen food. In these ordinances, businesses can also be exempt from different requirements if they’re providing pharmacy services, gas “or a certain metric for fresh food,” according to city staff.
New dollar stores in Fort Worth, for example, have to dedicate 10% of shelf space to fresh and frozen food. With just 5% more, new dollar stores looking to set up shop in Fort Worth can be exempt from distance requirements.
At the Quality of Life Committee meeting, City Council member Paul Ridley said he had some concerns about further regulations on private businesses. He asked specifically about the negative effects of these stores being heavily concentrated in certain areas. Staff said other cities have cited high-crime rates as a reason to clamp down on how many of these stores can be in any given neighborhood.
Ridley said it seemed counterintuitive to try to set distance requirements on the stores they’re hoping to get more fresh and frozen food into. He also asked why the regulations should only target these discount retail stores. “Why not gas stations and convenience stores?” Ridley said. City staff doesn’t have all the answers yet.
“I’d be very interested in what the legal department says about carrying out the city’s social policy on the backs of one particular type of business." – Paul Ridley, Dallas City Council
“I’d be very interested in what the legal department says about carrying out the city’s social policy on the backs of one particular type of business,” Ridley said.
Warren Norred, a local attorney, said it seems there's a trend in Dallas of leaning too much on businesses to help solve its social problems, like food scarcity and high crime. "[It's] usually based on the false belief that bureaucrats can create success by outlawing businesses that serve the lower economic rung," Norred said.
The attorney, who is also running Texas Senate, is representing the owners of Jim's Car Wash, which was shut down by the city in 2019 under the guise of fighting crime in the area. The move sparked a lawsuit against the city earlier this year. Dallas is also considering imposing new hours of operations on sexually oriented businesses as part of the push to reduce crime.
City Council member Omar Narvaez said he agrees with Ridley and that he doesn’t want to over regulate businesses if they can avoid it. Narvaez said the city also regulated payday lenders a few years ago to break up the concentration of them in certain parts of Dallas. The concentration of payday lenders in the city back then would likely track with the concentration of dollar stores in Dallas today, Narvaez said. Breaking up the concentration of payday lenders, Narvaez explained, prompted new banks to open up in those communities.
Some think breaking up the concentration of discount retail stores could have a similar effect by encouraging grocery stores to expand into down-and-out parts of town.
Council member Thomas said he's been looking into the issue for a while. He said it was brought to his attention by organizations like Feed Oak Cliff, who are advocating for grocery stores in the southern part of the city. He said their research has shown that dollar stores offering grocery options have been a factor in grocery stores not coming to parts of Dallas that have historically been without them.
Thomas added, “I’ve been on the phone with every major grocer in the United States and have been told the same thing: ‘We’re not looking at that area yet. We’re not looking at that concept yet. This city is not there.’”
Anga Sanders, who started Feed Oak Cliff, said the organization supports a moratorium on new dollar stores in the southern Dallas.
"They have a deleterious effect on communities, often driving out what (few) quality grocery stores are in food deserts, and selling substandard fare to a populous that is often trapped by circumstance in areas where they have few options," Sanders claimed. "It is still true that two pieces of matter cannot occupy the same space at the same time, making every dollar store a space where a decent grocery store cannot be."
According to the Center for Science in Public Interest, a nonprofit that advocates for safe and healthy food options, discount retail stores target communities of color, where large grocery stores tend to underinvest in those same communities. On top of that, these stores don't always offer healthier options. For example, only 3% of the Dollar General's in the U.S. sell fresh produce, according to the nonprofit.
Still, things may be changing. Dollar General started a new initiative recently called DG Fresh. With the initiative, the chain hopes to provide more fresh produce and invest in cold storage for frozen food and distribution for perishable food items.
Back in Highland Hills, longtime resident and activist Yafeuh Balogun said he feels dollar stores help contribute to the city's food desert epidemic. Most of the food available at dollar stores, he said, is unhealthy, high in salt and sugar.
City staff expects to bring more recommendations for possible regulations on discount retail stores in January.