In the News: How We Access Food

This past week, Vermont reached a $1.75 million settlement with Dollar General after the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets found that the store chain had consistently overcharged customers. The discount retailer had a track record of more than 350 violations over the last 5 years, charging customers more at checkout than what was advertised on the shelves.  

VAAFM inspectors regularly check retail weights and measures - from ensuring that gas pumps accurately reflect the amount of gas added to the tank, to verifying that produce weighs correctly on register scales. Dollar General was caught through random price checks with inspectors visiting the store.

The Dollar General story plays into an ongoing conversation around food access. The chain has been building its influence in rural communities as the WalMart for places too small to sustain the footprint of a typical WalMart store. This story from The Indicator explains how (and why) the Dollar General strategy diverged sharply from the original dollar store format. It means, among other things, that Dollar Generals are expanding their grocery options. Dollar General even used the fact that it accepts SNAP food benefits as part of its advertising campaign targeting lower income, rural Vermonters (per AP reporting). As a result, $100,000 of its recent fine will go to the Vermont FoodBank.

(For a more in depth discussion of how Dollar General has impacted rural communities across the country, listen to this conversation on the radio program 1A).

Dollar General is a non-traditional source of groceries making inroads into rural places. Does that theme sound familiar? It should because of a second major headline last week: beef jerky and SNAP benefits. The Trump administration set off heated debate with a proposal to expand eligible “staples” to include items like beef jerky, spray cheese, and stuffed olives.

Stores must offer a minimum number of staple items in different food categories to be eligible to accept SNAP benefits. By expanding the definition of eligible items, more convenience stores will be able to accept these benefits, potentially reducing the distance recipients need to travel to get food. However, by changing the definition of staples the government is no longer incentivizing stores to expand their offerings, which could have made more and better food available in underserved communities.

(For more on the topic of selling healthier food in communities served primarily by convenience stores, see this story by the New Food Economy).

This controversy is relevant in Vermont. The Vermont Farm to Plate plan, for example, includes convenience stores as part of its local food system reporting because it recognizes them as a strategically important part of food access in Vermont. But how do we move from where we are today to realizing the full potential of non-traditional grocery sources? There’s a lot of work ahead if these stores will truly help us build a strong food system that reaches everyone in the state.