Nationwide concern about the impact of dollar stores on low-income, food-insecure neighborhoods reaches Linden

“What is going on in my neighborhood?”

Longtime Linden resident Luster Singleton asks that question in a late-March Facebook Live video from the Family Dollar at East Hudson Street and I-71, where Singleton filmed a buildup of trash in the parking lot and condemned the incorrectly priced items in the store.

Nicknaming the chain of discount stores “Family Squalor,” Singleton began filming the East Hudson location and another store just over a mile away at East Weber and McGuffey roads last August. “I didn't realize it was a crusade, but I started to see that something had changed,” Singleton told Alive, suspecting that the decline was due in part to the 2015 acquisition of Family Dollar by Dollar Tree, a chain that sells its items even cheaper.

In the videos, Singleton implores the North Linden Area Commission and Mayor Andrew Ginther to take action. “I'm tired of it,” Singleton says while filming. “This is all we're left in our neighborhood. You took our grocery stores out. You took any viable businesses out, and all we're left is with this trashy store, just taking advantage of poor people.”

Singleton's voice is just one in a nationwide chorus accusing dollar stores of preying on distressed urban and rural neighborhoods. In December, nonprofit advocacy group the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) released an extensive report detailing the correlation between the presence of dollar stores, income and race (“Our research suggests they often target African American neighborhoods,” the report noted), as well as discount stores' contribution to economic decline.

“In small towns and urban towns alike, dollar stores are triggering the closure of grocery stores, eliminating jobs and further eroding the prospects of the vulnerable communities they target,” ILSR summarized, noting that because these establishments do not carry fresh produce and other healthy choices, they also are contributing to health disparities.

According to ILSR, Dollar General, Dollar Tree and its subsidiary, Family Dollar, have increased their stores from about 20,000 to approximately 30,000 since 2011. Although Dollar Tree plans to close nearly 400 Family Dollar stores in 2019, Dollar General has plans to open approximately 1,000.

Local, small-town grocery stores like Chet's Foods in Moville, Iowa, and Haven Foodliner in Haven, Kansas, have shuttered in the wake of this expansion, attributing their decline in sales to the opening of dollar stores in their areas. In response to this trend, cities have begun to embrace legislation specifically targeting dollar stores. Last year, Oklahoma's Tulsa City Council passed the Healthy Neighborhoods Overlay ordinance, which prohibits a dollar store from opening within one mile of another in certain areas.

Earlier this month in Ohio, Cleveland City Council introduced an emergency ordinance that would temporarily prohibit permits for new dollar stores, citing a “strategy of saturation” that inhibits local grocery stores.

Talk of exploring similar legislation has bubbled up in Linden, where six Family Dollar stores and one Dollar General are located in a span of less than three miles between East Weber Road and East 11th Avenue. According to city data, general merchandise and dollar stores account for 8 percent of retail in Linden — compared to just 2 percent of retail in the city as a whole.

Due to Linden's “persistent stagnation in multiple social and economic areas,” city officials have committed to the overall improvement of the neighborhood, as outlined in the 2018 One Linden Plan. About 45 percent of the predominantly black neighborhood, distressed by a history of redlining and disinvestment, lives below the poverty line. The unemployment rate is 12.8 percent, more than twice the rate for the city of Columbus. The area also experiences higher rates of infant mortality and diabetes, and a life expectancy eight years shorter than the Franklin County average.

Because health disparities can be exacerbated by food insecurity (defined as a lack of access to affordable, nutritious food), the closing of a Kroger in the Northern Lights Shopping Center in January 2018 — Linden's sole full-service grocery store — was devastating. The incoming Saraga International Grocery, due to open in the old Kroger space in May, will help with food access. But will it survive where the more familiar big-box store could not?

As Linden residents, organizations and city officials ponder that question, they are also weighing the dependence on dollar stores, as well as the blight and crime that often come packaged with the retailers. Others wonder whether the new focus on dollar stores is misplaced, and if the city should be looking at other factors in tackling food insecurity in Linden.

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Linden residents are still reeling more than a year after Kroger closed, forced to visit stores with limited selections, lower-quality items and higher prices. Depending on where one lives in Linden, and one's access to transportation, that means going to a Save-A-Lot across the street from the Northern Lights Shopping Center or Cook's IGA on Oakland Park Avenue. Some residents cross I-71 to get to Aldi.

“From purely anecdotal evidence, there was certainly an upsurge at the Morse Road Kroger, as well as the Clintonville Kroger, which surprised me a little bit,” said Brian Estabrook, who helped organize the Columbus & Franklin County Local Food Action Plan, which aims to strengthen the local food system.

But to get to those Kroger locations, residents must catch the bus or hitch a ride with family, friends or neighbors.

“People are carpooling,” said longtime resident Renee Whitfield. “Have you heard of the neighborhood Uber driver, like the old man who has the car and takes the neighborhood moms to the store for a couple of dollars or gas money? You see that happening.”

There have also been community efforts to provide fresh produce to Linden, both before and after the Kroger closed. For example, Kwodwo Ababio of New Harvest Cafe and Urban Arts Center manages a community garden outside of his restaurant. The Food Not Bombs organization also sets up a free produce stand each Saturday, and the Linden Farmers' Market launched last year and will return this July.

“We saw a groundswell of community support and organizing,” said Max Slater, the former manager of Project AquaStar, a community farm and education center at St. Stephen's Community House in Linden.

However, due to budget cuts, St. Stephens has paused Project AquaStar and related programming. (The farm will be transformed into a “learning lab” for Linden students in the near future.) Similarly, the Fresh Foods Here community initiative, which partnered with local corner stores to offer healthy options, is inactive.

“There's a trend with a lot of these programs,” Slater said. “It's like we get a lot of really well-intentioned folks and a lot of great ideas. We get the institutions on board. But after a while, there's a staying power that seems difficult to maintain.”

At the same time, dollar stores are playing a supplemental role, with many residents patronizing them solely for toilet paper, cleaning supplies, pet food and other household items. But others are also buying food.

“People are getting milk and cereal and cookies and Pop-Tarts and those kinds of things to supplement them throughout the month,” said Whitfield.

“When you go to a dollar store on Cleveland Avenue, and your options are boxed mac and cheese and burritos and corn dogs, then your diet's going to suffer,” said Franklin County Commissioner John O'Grady, who helped lead the Columbus & Franklin County Local Food Action Plan. “You're going to get worse checkups at the doctor, and you're going to have a much less healthy community.”

Despite their titles, dollar stores are also deceptively expensive. “[They] package many of their products in smaller quantities than items sold at traditional grocery stores,” ILSR reported. “This cuts sticker prices, but often results in higher costs per ounce.”

Linden resident Aaron Davenport complained about “outrageous” prices at the Dollar General in Cleveland Innis Plaza across from Northern Lights. He also explained that people using Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) — 46.5 percent in Linden — are at risk of overspending.

“When you pay with your food stamps, you [say], ‘Well, I need it, and I have the money,'” he said.

And then there's the conditions. Presumably adhering to stricter guidelines in shopping plazas, Dollar General and the Northern Lights Family Dollar's outdoor areas are relatively clean. However, on recent visits, most of the remaining Family Dollar stores in Linden have piles of trash strewn across lots and surrounding grass areas.

The indoor spaces are also unappealing. In addition to narrow, unorganized aisles often littered with boxes, multiple Family Dollar stores have flooring marred by spray paint. A staff member at the location at Cleveland and 11th avenues remarked that the graffiti had been there longer than he'd been employed. The same store also had dirt caked at the bottom of refrigerators storing milk and other dairy products.

Last June, the Family Dollar at Cleveland and Republic avenues was forced to close temporarily due to a rodent infestation. “I was the reason why they closed,” said John Sherman Lathram III, chairman of the North Linden Area Commission. “I went and took about two dozen pictures inside and sent them to corporate, and they were appalled. … They cleaned it up, and then it just went right back to its usual ugly, nasty self.”

Reached for comment on its impact in Linden, a Family Dollar spokesperson emailed the following statement: “Our stores provide an affordable and convenient fill-in shopping option for our customers in between their weekly or biweekly grocery store trips, all while creating more jobs and investing in the communities we serve.”

Dollar General did not respond to requests for comment.

Part of the problem at these discount stores is the revolving door of employees, residents said. Most of the Family Dollar locations in Linden currently have “hiring” signs on display.

“Businesses being held accountable is a problem across the board in Linden,” resident Luster Singleton said. “I know that the way that our trash is taken care of in our neighborhood is not the experience I had when I lived in Clintonville, and is not the experience I had when I lived in Grandview. … [The businesses] are making money off of these people and [they] don't care enough about us. And I don't know why ‘Family Squalor' can't seem to figure out a way to keep people from robbing [them]. But the way all of their stuff looks [says they] don't care at all. And I think that that's an encouragement [to thieves].”

The evidence of frequent theft at Family Dollar stores can be seen in their layout; surveillance monitors hang above the aisles, and basic toiletries like soap and toothpaste are kept behind counters at some locations. The East Weber Road store plays a recorded message assuring customers that the store is being monitored for safety. The store at Cleveland and Republic avenues — a 15-minute walk from Linden-McKinley STEM Academy — is currently looking for a suspect who committed a robbery last month.

According to research in the One Linden plan, “the two most prominent geographic clusters of all types of 911 calls” are at the Family Dollar at East Hudson and I-71, and at the intersection of Cleveland Avenue and East Weber Road — a 20-minute walk from another Family Dollar.

Similarly, Cleveland City Council noted “concerns about safety and security surrounding small box discount stores because of the often high incidences of crime and theft” in its emergency ordinance against the businesses.

“I've been doing the research on all this stuff,” Lathram said of placing restrictions on dollar stores in Linden. “I'm speaking to other council members in other cities to see how they went about doing it.”

Despite the problems presented by dollar stores, some people want them to remain in the neighborhood. On social media, when Lathram brings up the issue, he sees responses like, “But I get everything there I need,” and, “It's close to my house.” And despite the turnover, the stores do provide jobs.

“The dollar store is not the problem,” Commissioner O'Grady said. “It's the idea that there's not a better alternative to the dollar store. … We can't go twist the dollar stores' arm and make them add something to their business model.”

However, Dollar General has begun rolling out healthier items like yogurt, protein bars and even produce. While Dollar Tree has not followed suit, it has added alcohol to some Family Dollar locations.

Glennon Sweeney, a senior research associate at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, suggests that prioritizing safe and affordable housing will ultimately combat food insecurity. “I don't even want to talk about the food issue, quite frankly, because it's not about a grocery store,” she said. “If you give people housing, they are more likely to be able to get and hold a job.”

Once residents have housing and jobs, Sweeney said, they can go buy food at the grocery store. “[Then] Kroger wants to come back to Linden and Kroger hires people who live in Linden,” she said. “Those are the solutions to food insecurity. It's not in the food system.”

Feed & Read Ohio founder Jacques Angelino, who distributes free food and books in Linden and other neighborhoods, underscored Sweeney's point. “If you can't afford food, it doesn't matter how close the grocery store is,” he said during an interview in South Linden, where he was volunteering with Food Not Bombs. “There's a lot of people that wouldn't eat tonight if they didn't come in here today to get the food.”

Beyond offering food, Saraga owner John Sung has expressed a desire to hire Linden residents. Commissioner O'Grady also said plans are in the works to assist Sung with incubating small businesses in the building space not being occupied by the grocery. According to O'Grady and food systems planner Brian Estabrook, that unique business model, along with an existing customer base from its first location on Morse Road, will help Saraga succeed.

“There is no doubt that dollar stores provide competition to traditional grocery stores and can certainly play a role in the success of any food business,” said Kristin Mullins, CEO of the Ohio Grocers Association. “However, I do think that a good grocery operator can compete successfully. … Will Saraga be affected? My opinion is that this store does have its challenges ahead, but the operators of Saraga know of their competition and will focus on their own strengths, and will do all they can to provide what the community needs and wants.”

Along with businesses and organizations, residents will also help shape the future of economically distressed communities. As ILSR reported, the passing of the dollar store ordinance in Tulsa “marked a new era of political inclusion and grassroots power.” And in Linden, Luster Singleton's one-person dollar store crusade has helped spark a new conversation about the neighborhood's conditions.

“It's time to start complaining and start demanding that we get better here,” Singleton said. “We want businesses that care about our neighborhood.”