About 20 years ago, academic researchers began describing poor urban neighborhoods without supermarkets as “food deserts.” The term captured the attention of elected officials, activists, and the media. They mapped these nutritional wastelands, blamed them on the rise of suburban shopping centers and the decline of mass transit, linked them to chronic health problems suffered by the poor, and encouraged government subsidies to lure food stores to these communities.
Despite these efforts, which led to hundreds of new stores opening around the country, community health outcomes haven’t changed significantly, and activists think that they know why. The culprits, they say, are the dollar-discount stores in poor neighborhoods that—or so they claim—drive out supermarkets and sell junk food. Never mind that compelling research suggests a lack of supermarkets isn’t the problem—let alone the popularity of discount stores.
This latest front in the food wars has emerged over the last few years. Communities like Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Fort Worth, Birmingham, and Georgia’s DeKalb County have passed restrictions on dollar stores, prompting numerous other communities to consider similar curbs. New laws and zoning regulations limit how many of these stores can open, and some require those already in place to sell fresh food.
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