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Community Voices: Not a banana to be had at Dollar General

Wendy Wesley



“Living in a thriving community with access to quality educational and health resources leads to positive cognitive and physical development for children. However, when neighborhoods lack access to these opportunities, children and families suffer, especially people of color.” – An Equity Profile of Pinellas County, UNITE Pinellas, 2018

Within a 42-block area of south St. Petersburg there is no full-service grocery store that sells fresh or frozen produce, meats, dairy products or whole grains. 

A picture of a Dollar General taken from the parking lot of another dollar store. (Photo by Wendy Wesley).

But between 4th and 45th Avenues South and 34th Street South to the Bay there are six dollar stores: two Dollar Generals and four Family Dollars.

The scarcity of affordable and nutritious foods in the area may be impacted by the concentration of these small, discount stores that sell highly processed, high sodium, low nutrient and low fiber food. 

A few cities across the nation have banned dollar store chains claiming they edge out for-profit grocers and grocery co-ops. As the fastest-growing retailer in the U.S, Dollar General and its close cousin, Family Dollar (owned by Dollar Tree), have more than 30,000 stores combined.

They have done extremely well in recent years by moving into small, rural towns and urban neighborhoods. 

Their business plan is saturation – and we are drowning in a salty sea of them.

With so many dollar stores in one area there is little incentive for a full-service grocer to come in. Their presence creates a perilous food environment for a population that is presently ill with diabetes, heart disease and kidney failure. 

“Having access to healthy food choices greatly impacts diet and weight. Pinellas County surpasses Hillsborough, Orange, Sarasota and Florida in adult obesity.”  – Health Equity, July 2018, A Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg.

Inside the Dollar General, located across from the Walmart at Tangerine Plaza that closed more than 900 days ago, there is not one tomato or head of lettuce to be had.

In August I toured the store. There, I found one dozen eggs for $1, one gallon of whole milk for $2.65, a shelf of dried spices, pouched tuna fish, ground coffee, nuts, one variety of bagged dried beans (pinto) and several three-pound bags of enriched white rice. The prices on these items were good but they were the only whole food options. 

The rest of the choices – most of the food section – were lacking nutrition. 

Dollar store shelves at a local St. Petersburg dollar store. (Photo by Wendy Wesley)

Shelf after shelf of soda. Long rows of chips, cakes, cookies, snack pies, Ho-Hos and Ding-Dongs. Refrigerator cases of processed meats like bologna, sausages and hot dogs. Canned chili and pasta sauce stacked high. Ramen. Fluffy, white, zero-fiber breads. Rice-a-Roni, instant mashed potatoes and Pasta Sensations. Gallons of sweet tea and orange-y and grape-y drinks. Ice cream melting in a broken freezer.

A resident of Child’s Park suggested I check out Blue Nile on 18th Avenue South for produce and hot food. A man out front was selling produce – three red bell peppers and nine oranges, to be exact – but there was none for sale inside. A worker at Blue Nile stated she drives to Largo for the vegetables used in the hot food.

A Blue Nile customer told me about Taste of the Islands Market at 34th Street and 22 Avenue South. I visited, and it does have a nice selection of fresh produce. 

In July the city council of Birmingham, Alabama voted to prohibit new dollar stores from opening within a one-mile radius of existing stores. Similar legislation was passed in Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Mesquite, Texas. New Orleans and Cleveland are currently considering a vote to restrict more dollar-type stores.

St. Petersburg leaders have discussed limiting the length of storefronts downtown to discourage chains. Perhaps similar policies should exist where nutrient-dense food is not available.

“If the community is unable to generate lasting, systemic impact, we will continue to deny the contributions that people at the margins are ready and able to make toward the well-being of the whole.” – An Equity Profile of Pinellas County, UNITE Pinellas, 2018.

Blue Nile (photo by Wendy Wesley).

One popular idea is the creation of a grocery cooperative, a member-owned store where anyone can shop and members make all the decisions and receive discounts. 

In July, Vision 2020, an initiative by stakeholders in this area of St. Petersburg, named the One Community Grocery Co-Op the “number one big idea,” with a majority of the 1,400-plus people surveyed by People’s Budget Review choosing a grocery co-op as the greatest need. 

One Community Grocery Co-Op pledges to follow a road-tested national model of forming grocery co-ops designed by the Food Co-Op Initiative. One Community must recruit 300 members to finish Phase 1 and is seeking financial support for marketing to recruit more members. Co-ops work in cities like Tallahassee and Minneapolis, and will thrive here, too.

“Co-ops share accountability like they share profits and work to increase economic and social justice, create inclusive ownership and reverse wealth inequality,” states Greg Brodsky of the Cooperative Development Institute.

Member-owned and operated co-ops offer an economic multiplier effect of 1.6 shown in a recent study by ICA Group. This means that for every $1,000 spent in a co-op grocery, $1600.04 is generated in the local economy. This effect is not seen with big box grocers and dollar stores which typically offer a multiplier of 1.36. 

Yes, Beach Drive and downtown are booming. Tourism and the arts are flourishing. We have an enviable restaurant and nightlife scene. All these things make St. Petersburg, my hometown, sparkle.

But many in our community are marginalized, left behind and hindered by a lack of leadership, action and vision.

St. Petersburg is only as healthy as its poorest and sickest residents. 

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  1. Avatar

    S. Rose Smith-Hayes

    September 13, 2019at4:36 pm

    I guess we need to find people in those neighborhood that care.

  2. Avatar

    Josette Green

    September 13, 2019at4:47 pm

    Having just moved to this area, I find have ways to deal with the food desert. On Sunday mornings a truck loaded down with produce is on my street and the neighbors stream out and buy. It’s not the perfect solution however. We need full service grocery stores. I might add that my new neighborhood is the quietest and safest place I’ve lived. My neighbors have lived here a long time and everyone watches out for each other.

  3. Avatar

    Becky Jamin

    September 13, 2019at8:07 pm

    What we need are a Mayor and city council who aren’t concerned ONLY with the size of our skyline. We need REAL affordable housing. We NEED for under privileged families to have access to good nutrient-dense food at a decent price. Junk food is always the most affordable. Look at the dollar menu at McD. Garbage food is always cheaper. The one good thing is the produce vendors at the Saturday morning Market that accept SNAP.
    The leaders in our local government seem to be interested in high dollar condos, apartments and restaurants. They aren’t interested in caring for or meeting the needs of the basic working class residents.

  4. Irv Cohen

    Irv Cohen

    September 14, 2019at12:51 pm

    Wendy, very well said. Our community must provide the leadership to provide proper options for all our citizens
    A food coop is one answer. A viable business plan with adequate capital can make this happen

  5. Avatar

    Danny White

    September 15, 2019at11:59 am

    Their are independent neighborhood markets like Rajax and St. Pete Meat House, both located on Dr.MLK St S just south of 22nd Ave S, that offer fresh and/or frozen produce and many food and beverage products commonly found in full-fledged grocery stores. Other mom and pop convenience markets scattered throughout predominantly Black neighborhoods below 5th Ave S offer hot fast food-style sandwiches and meals that lean more toward traditional ‘soul food’ and may not be considered ‘healthy’ as a steady diet. Yes, some of these same markets also carry large stocks of highly processed, empty calorie sweets and a staggering array sugary beverages and tobacco products. Perhaps the existence of ‘food deserts’ is exacerbated by the lack of basic healthy living knowledge. People who routinely buy products at these neighbors markets may benefit from healthy living education so that, in the absence of traditional grocery stores or farmer’s market operations, they can at least learn how to make healthier choices wherever they shop for consumables. Many of these markets fill a viable need for many who lack transportation or financial resources to shop in stores like Walmart, Publix, Aldi and Winn Dixie. I believe we cannot continue to focus solely on the absence of healthier food in a neighborhood but focus on ways to creatively address the gap without expecting Dollar or mom and pop stores to change their marketing strategies or continuing to plead for major chains to set up shop or placing blame on City and/or community leadership for not being as consistently vocal as they are expected to be. The Healthy St. Pete initiative that has just set up a community outreach center at 22nd Ave S and 34th St might be a great place to hold brainstorming sessions with City and community leaders and impacted citizens to address this ongoing issue. I would definitely participate!

  6. Avatar

    Stephen Smith

    September 15, 2019at1:56 pm

    Excellent work!

    What is the solution? Are you involved in the local chapter? Also, this is likely not isolated to our area… it’s a sad epidemic. We need to look at some research and grants to make a real impact.

    • Avatar

      Judith Turner

      September 16, 2019at10:56 am

      Sweet bays closing was part of a 17 store closure, it was not a target closure.

  7. Avatar

    Tom Tito

    September 15, 2019at9:32 pm

    This has been a concern for 50 years.

    A lot of city taxpayer money was wasted with nothing to show for it. Enough money was spent to develop several low cost grocery stores with low prices and low overhead.

    The Module 16 Advisory Committee made this a priority for city planners in the mid 70’s and the city developed an expensive project to replace Webb’s City, which was torn down to make a parking lot, with the Winn Dixie at Webb’s Plaza. That was not sustainable and closed just before the city subsidized Sweetbay opened.

    The Bartlett Park Neighborhood Association and the city made this a priority in the early 90’s but nothing happened. That part of Midtown had been served by at least 5 grocers including Webb’s, the old A&P on 4th Street South, Winn Dixie on 22nd Ave and MLK and Cronks Market on 11th Ave and MLK. There was another neighborhood market on 19th Ave near 3rd Street.

    The Sweetbay opened with a great celebration the weekend before the city elections and closed when the subsidy ended. All the money for economic development was swept up and wasted on this. The next mayor had to deal with the store closing and made a bad deal with Walmart to reopen the store for a short time but keep other grocers out when Walmart left

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