KANAWHA COUNTY, WV (WOWK) — No matter where you live, chances are there is at least one Dollar Store in your community.
Right now, according to Dollar General, approximately 75% of the United States population currently lives within five miles of one of their stores.
While that might be a good thing when looking for bargains on household staples, the stores may not help with a growing problem in rural America known as food deserts.
“We only had one market and that was the Key Market and after the Key Market went away then we haven’t had another grocery store,” said Barbara Smith.
Smith has lived in Rand with her husband, John, for 53 years. For most of that time, there has not been a grocery store in their neighborhood. They are less than 10 miles from the West Virginia State Capitol.
“We deserve to have a grocery store. We deserve to have a gas station. We deserve all of these things, but we just don’t have them, and it doesn’t look like we are going to have them,” Smith said.
They drive to Walmart in Quincy or to Kroger in Kanawha City.
Both grocery stores are around six miles away and they are grateful to have a vehicle.
“Thank the Lord we do. It would be difficult for us,” Smith said. “My son, of course, would pick us up and take us, but he lives in St. Albans. The bus, my husband couldn’t even make it to the bus, and I would not want to have to ride the bus and then have to carry the groceries from the bus to my home. “
By the United States Department of Agriculture’s parameters, a “food desert” is a tract with at least 500 people, or 33% of the population, living more than one mile in an urban setting, or 10 miles in a rural setting, from the nearest supermarket, supercenter or large grocery store.
A few miles might not seem that far to most people, but especially in low-income areas not everyone has the privilege of having a car. There are also people in many communities who don’t have the ability to drive.
“Then if people have to pay someone to get them to the market to shop and then try to buy groceries, as well you know how outrageous the prices are for groceries right now, how could you do it,” Smith said.
Josh Lohnes is a Research Assistant Professor at West Virginia University in the Center for Resilient Communities. He said West Virginia has one of the highest food insecurity rates in the country and the most significant driver for food insecurity is poverty.
“As the poverty rates remain the same there is even more desertification and abandonment not only rural landscapes, we have to remember that poor neighborhoods in an urban context are also abandoned by retailers,” Lohnes said.
In Rand where the Smiths live, there is a population of 1,543. The median household income there is $38,945 compared to $51,248 statewide.
While their community doesn’t have a grocery store, they do have a Dollar General and a Dollar Tree close by.
“We are seeing the transformation of our food landscapes with the ‘Dollar General-isation’ of food access. You know, fewer and fewer corner grocery stores are able to survive in a highly competitive national food market,” Lohnes said.
For people without easy access to an actual grocery store, their local dollar store becomes the only option for food to stock their refrigerator and pantry.
“It is a few frozen meats, but not something that you would want to serve your family. You can get hotdogs but hey you are talking about feeding your family here you have to have something better than that,” Barbara said.
While it may be convenient, the quality of food people are able to purchase at their local dollar store is affecting their overall health.
“These foods are packaged foods that need to last on a shelf for a long time and that requires extra preservatives including sodium,” explained Jessica Walden, a registered dietician. “When we have those high-sodium foods and beverages included, then we are going what is over the dietary recommended intake.”
Walden said there could be concerning health implications when people don’t have access to traditional grocery stores. Building a balanced, nutritious meal, for breakfast, lunch and dinner can be a tremendous challenge when your food source is a dollar store.
“The carbohydrates can get a bad rap in the diet world but they aren’t all bad. We need carbohydrates. They turn into glucose or sugar for your body to use for your brain to work. They are not all bad. But we want those carbohydrates to come from things like fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains and when you go into the food deserts the foods that are provided there really don’t meet any of those qualifications,” Walden said.
13 News reached out to Dollar General to see what they are doing to address the needs of the communities they serve when in many cases there are no grocery stores.
They said right now Dollar General offers fresh produce in more than 3,000 Dollar General stores with plans to add it to approximately 2,000 additional stores in the fiscal year 2023.
“We ultimately plan to have fresh produce in more than 10,000 total stores in the coming years, with a meaningful number in USDA-defined food deserts,” a Dollar General Spokesperson said. “Our produce offerings include the top 20 items typically sold in grocery stores and approximately 80% of the produce categories carried by most grocers.”
The spokesperson said there are currently 25 Dollar General stores in West Virginia selling fresh produce.
But those leading the push to alleviate food insecurity in the Mountain State say it is going to take more, including looking at food as a public utility and working with state and local governments to improve food access.
“We would love to see our state start investing in community food security initiatives that really help local grocers get off the ground,” Lohnes said.
Elizabeth Brunello is the Youth Program Director with the American Friends Service Committee of West Virginia. She said education is key.
“I think the amount of education we need to do with lawmakers, with the powerful with people that have the ability to decide where resources go, that education, I think there is so much more to do there,” Brunello said.
The Smiths are hoping for better options for their friends and neighbors in the decades to come even if things don’t get better overnight.
“They have these guys, these thinkers, that could very easily come up with a plan where we wouldn’t be total orphans,” John Smith said. “We would have a store a lot closer than any of them are now. It probably wouldn’t be right here in Rand it would be where the dollar stores are now.”
To learn more about how the USDA defines food deserts and to see if you live in one, click here.
Submit a Tip For A Closer Look