Remaining To Be Seen

The headline “Lack of Grocery Stores Creates Unhealthy Food Desert in Southern Dallas” that graced The Dallas Morning News’s http://www.dallasnews.com/news/ (in print, pp. 1 & 28) front-page story today (August 28, 2011) is argumentative and misleading. The logic that the lack of something could create something else boggles the mind. The result of the lack of grocery stores in a neighborhood or area may be inconvenience, but the real question is what caused the lack.

Quite simply, the lack of grocery stores, meaning big-box types is a result of those stores’ headquarters management determining they cannot make a profit on stores in that neighborhood. The story alleges that supermarket chains use two main criteria – population and income – when deciding whether to open a store. I suppose that is true, but there surely is more to it. Not being privy to the marketing secrets of the various chains, I cannot say for sure what they are, but there are clues.

One is the availability of fast food in low income neighborhoods. They have no trouble making a profit. Why? Quite simply because it sells. Even though it has been deemed generally unhealthy by dietitians, it is calorie-wise a good value, and, of overriding importance, it tastes good. With fast-food available, many residents do not want to take the trouble to drive to a supermarket out of the neighborhood, but would they patronize one if they only had to travel a few blocks? Some would, I am sure, but enough to make it profitable?

A condition that had retarded the large grocery store entry into Southern Dallas was that nearly all of the area was dry; that is, sale of alcoholic beverages was not permitted. The supermarkets chains depend upon the sale of beer and wine to bolster, and in marginal stores make, profits. But the local option character of whether the sale of alcoholic beverages would be permitted created an odd patchwork of wet and dry areas. Municipalities, justice-of-the peace precincts, and whole counties – the boundaries of which often overlap – can decide the beverage laws in their bailiwicks.

In 2010, the City of Dallas held a local option election on whether to permit beer and wine sales for off-premises consumption (retail stores of all kinds) and, separately, to permit sale for on-premises consumption for all kinds of alcoholic beverages. The drive for calling the elections was spearheaded by several supermarket chains. One of their arguments was that sale of beer and wine would make it possible to open profitable stores in the then dry areas. This was opposed, and after it passed, legally challenged by a coalition of church leaders from Southern Dallas. Their argument was that of the prohibitionists from time past, with the added twist that the stores were seeking to prey upon the weaknesses of the poor people that lived in their neighborhoods. (As if their neighbors had any trouble driving to a wet area to obtain their favorite beverages, even though it was too great an imposition for them to drive that far to obtain fresh fruit and vegetables.) The challenge was supported by several liquor store chains; their entirely rational argument was that they could not make a profit competing with grocery store selling only beer and wine, when their distribution and business plan was the marketing of hard liquor, with beer and wine only ancillary.

As mentioned, the local option passed, and the challenge in the courts (based upon hypertechnical alleged defects in the enabling petition to bring the election) is likely to fail.

It is a fact that many grocers are now moving into Southern Dallas. A companion story in the News (p.29-A) confirms this trend. I believe it is a direct result of the removal of restrictions on beer and wine, although the News gave that aspect short-shrift. Free enterprise means being able to give the customers what they want free of unreasonable restrictions, and it works. Whether the populace served will take home fresh meat, fruits and vegetables along with their beer and wine, remains to be seen.

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