By Catrina Satterwhite

With the New Year approaching, here come the resolutions. A popular resolution is of course getting our health and eating habits in order. But, what if you couldn’t entertain this type of resolution for the new year even if you wanted to?

While many can choose whether to eat a fresh salad or a buttered steak for dinner, there are several communities that do not have easy access to healthy foods to make that choice. In Highland Hills in the South sector of Dallas, this is the case. The only “grocery” store in the area is Family Dollar, which isn’t an actual grocery store. 

Dallas City Councilman Casey Thomas puts it plainly. “Some neighborhoods in some districts, you got grocery stores lined up right next to each other,” Thomas recently said during a council committee meeting. “Ours are miles apart.”

If residents want to shop at a full grocery store, they will have to commute to either Cedar Hill, Duncanville, or some other areas outside of the community. With the community already impoverished, for some this may be impossible. They’re forced to deal with the higher prices for lower quality goods in the stores available. This is a major problem that many may not pay attention to or simply not know even exists if they don’t live south of I-30. 

Back in 2019, things were set to change and residents were full of hope. German-based grocery chain Lidl had plans to finally bring a grocery store near Clark and Wheatland Roads. The mission was to provide foods for the whole body, not just dairy, snacks, and frozen meals. Thomas had been on a mission for three years tackling Dallas’ food deserts, only to have the chain squash their plans. Even worse, he was not informed. 

“I was disappointed. Someone with Lidl didn’t call directly and say we are having some financial challenges or whatever the case may be,” Thomas told WFAA in 2019.

When grocery chain Lidl was asked why they pulled out, they issued a statement saying, “We have secured sites in Texas for future growth, but have not announced a formal timeline for expansion into the state. We are focused on our operations along the East Coast, where we are currently expanding and opening stores.”

Years later, Thomas and local residents are still fighting for fresh food. Thomas held a public meeting on December 7, 2021 at the Thurgood Marshall Community Center regarding the concentration of dollar stores south of I-30. At the meeting, Thomas argued that too many dollar stores make it difficult to open and maintain grocery stores. If that sounds like a contradiction, I can understand why. You might think that because dollar stores are more affordable, problems would be solved. But according to Thomas, community activists, and decades of research, the dollar stores are the problem.

According to an in-depth report provided by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR),  the spread of dollar stores  in struggling city neighborhoods and small towns has had disastrous results. They argue the growth of dollar stores is not merely a byproduct of economic distress. It is a partial cause of it. 

In less than a decade, Dollar General and Dollar Tree, which bought Family Dollar in 2015 multiplied from 20,000 locations to nearly 30,000 today with plans to build 20,000 more. By saturating communities with multiple outlets, dollar stores have made it harder for full-service grocery stores to succeed. The chains are fueled by easy cash from Wall Street and crowd out other new grocers and local businesses.

Anga Sanders, founder of FEED Oak Cliff, is quite familiar with this dilemma. FEED Oak Cliff is a Dallas-based non-profit promoting food awareness and increasing healthy eating habits within our community. Sanders came up with this idea when she noticed that an Uptown Dallas Albertsons store had the most beautiful make-your-own-salad bar and realized that her community in Oak Cliff had nothing of the sort.

“I gave my speech at my alma mater, SMU, about these issues. I remember saying maybe we will have a grocery store in a year,” Sanders said at the community meeting on December 7. “A woman [who worked for a major grocery chain] laughed in my face and said don’t hold your breath.”

According to Sanders, when asking a grocer to potentially place a store in the area, they typically believe it is high crime, high-thug, and a low-income neighborhood. But Sanders says the crime data doesn’t support that argument, noting that the bougie Northpark Mall is the highest crime shopping center in Dallas. As a result of this false perception, grocery stores have not invested heavily in south Dallas, leaving a major vacuum that’s been filled by dollar stores.  

But activists like Sanders have hope. Cities like Birmingham, Cleveland, and New Orleans, have taken legislative action to restrict the unchecked spread of dollar stores and support local grocery store development instead. With the help of our Mayor, community, council members, and grocery store companies who are willing to change their perceptions, Councilman Thomas and Sanders hope Dallas can follow suit.

“We have these major grocery stores saying we have our needs met by the dollar stores,” Councilman Thomas said. “I’m not saying that’s a justifiable reason, but that’s been the excuse, and we want to limit that excuse.”

Steven Monacelli is an independent investigative journalist based in Dallas. He has been contributing to Dallas Weekly since 2021. He is also the publisher of Protean Magazine, a nonprofit literary publication.