Sunday, January 31, 2010

Our Haitian Mud Cakes

Dollar Stores: The Last, and Not So Healthy Eating Choice, Before the Food Lines

"Dollar stores have proliferated like algae on a pool of stagflation. The 50-year-old Family Dollar chain marked the opening of its 500th store in 1982. By 2004 there were 5,000 Family Dollar outlets throughout America. In a statement for an article published that year in the Baltimore Daily Record, Retail Forward called dollar stores the "hottest and highest growth sectors of retailing." Currently nearly 20,000 dollar stores of every variety dot the landscape. Just last week, the Family Dollar (which has grown by 1,665 outlets in the past six years) reported a 13 percent increase in its stock.

You can find almost any common household item in dollar stores: flimsy but colorful wrapping paper and Christmas decorations, novelty cosmetics and overstock cleaning agents, exotic knick-knacks and discontinued toys. Shoppers from all walks of life are drawn to these places: some to relax, some to stumble upon a bargain, others to cut a few strategic corners that will enable them to splash out on luxuries elsewhere. But a growing number of people shop at dollar stores because they can't afford to shop anywhere else -- and one of the things they really can't afford is food.

Food prices aren't uniformly cheaper in dollar stores; often the same items can be found elsewhere on sale for less. The quiddity of the dollar store is its promise of a single, low price. Psychologically, customers seem willing to accept that they will be overcharged occasionally in exchange for never being overcharged very much while at the same time snagging mostly bargains. Accessing these bargains doesn't require buying in bulk, waiting for a sale or, in some cases, traveling to the outskirts of the city or to suburbs where major supermarkets are often located.

There also exists a parallel universe of obscure brands created especially for the dollar discount market. Thus, many staples of the American menu can be obtained for half of their grocery store prices. Just $1.49 will put a generous 24-ounce-can of Hartford House beef stew on someone's dinner table. That's a dollar less than Dinty Moore, which is sold in 15-ounce portions. Macaroni and cheese, already priced by Kraft within reach of the dollar store shopper at $1.40 a box (or 10 for $1 each), can be had in a Parade brand version for the everyday low, low price of 89 cents.

As Ellen Ruppel Shell points out in her book, Cheap: The High Price of Discount Culture, "We pay less for these products than we would for their quality counterparts, but not so much less that we are getting a really good deal." The axiom that not everything priced at a dollar constitutes a deal goes double for an essential like food.

Consumers whose circumstances require them to eat for less save money when choosing dollar store items over premium brands, but they're often eating the same food in name only. While the second ingredient in Dinty Moore stew (after water) is "beef," the primary meat used in the Hartford House brand is "diced beef patty," a substance parenthetically described as a mixture of beef, water, soy protein concentrate, salt and caramel color. Likewise the festive-sounding Parade macaroni and cheese in its Kraft-lookalike blue packaging lists flour and salt in its cheese sauce before throwing back the curtain on milk products like whey.

Perhaps the most glaring example of adulterated merchandise comes in the form of a plastic bear. "Little Honey Bear Blend" is a product marketed by the ominously named Global Brands consisting of corn syrup flavored with the "finest imported pure honey" and available for only one dollar, "considerably less than national brands." Having tasted real honey, I can state with confidence that Little Honey Bear Blend tastes exactly like corn syrup tinged with a hint of honey. A child raised on nothing else would not have that frame of reference.

A great deal of dollar store foods promise high flavor but deliver few nutrients and even lack key ingredients. Private Label's Garlic Hot Sauce contains "spice extractives" (the last ingredient, before red #40) but doesn't indicate that any of these are garlic. Likewise Lindsay Gardens' Green Tea with Chai contains "chai flavor" and also black pepper, but no cardamom. Hawaiian Punch Freezer Bars feature a flavor called "Green Berry Rush" which true to its moniker is vividly green, but contains no berries of any sort.

Distributed foods and beverages hailing from unregulated countries abound in dollar stores. Royal Dansk Danish-style butter cookies for $1.29 are made in Indonesia and distributed by a company in Melville, New York. House Mill Honey Rings are produced in Argentina and distributed by outlets in Puerto Rico, Libya and Senegal. Pickles bottled in Turkey are marketed under the Italian name Forelli and distributed by Allied International Corporation, based in Virginia.

Food is one place where it is particularly painful to have to skimp. It's one thing to suffer nicks and cuts from a shoddy shaving razor and quite another to end up obese, malnourished or sick after prolonged dependence on poor quality food. Even generic brand vitamins from major drugstore chains come certified by the United States Pharmacopeia. Not so the Nature's Benefits "Complete Multi A to Z" vitamins I purchased for $1.39. Or what about Tai Chi Flue! Tea, which comes from somewhere in China. Was more care given to the quality of its ingredients than to the spelling of the word flu?"


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