Are Discount Grocery Stores Bad for Philly?

Bottom Dollar Food versus the locavore's co-op.

When I saw my first Bottom Dollar Food store—I’m pretty sure it was the location at Broad and Sparks—I really wanted to dislike it. I don’t know if it was the idea of dirt-cheap eats, the implication that your last dollar (as opposed to your first or second) is the one you should be spending on food, or just the allusion to Annie, but it seemed repellant.

If memory serves me right, I turned to my fiancée as we drove past and said something like, “That doesn’t sound very appetizing. Who’d want to shop there?

The thing is, apparently a lot of people do. If you’ve been paying attention to such things, Bottom Dollar Food stores, the low-cost sibling of the Food Lion family, have been popping up in and around Philly in the last year, and the idea behind the chain seems to be something along the lines of an Aldi or Save-A-Lot, stores that do deep, deep discounting on store-brand grocery items. To that model, Bottom Dollar adds a smattering of brand items—all at prices so low it leaves customers scratching their heads—plus, according to a handful of mommy-blog reviews (note, most of these bloggers were invited to the store and offered a gift card to facilitate coverage), a quirky sense of customer service in the Trader Joe’s mold. They seem, well, kinda fun.

Aside from some snarky Yelp gripes about produce freshness and inattentive service, people seem to like these places. (And coupon freaks seem to love them because, unlike other discount groceries, they accept coupons.)

The question is: Should people like them? Not Bottom Dollar specifically, but rather any “grocery” store that specializes in the kinds of products—processed, preservative-laden foods—that many experts will tell you don’t actually solve the nutrition issues faced by areas with limited access to grocery stores.

Or, to put it another way (and pardon me as I tread lightly): Even now, in the midst of a lingering recession and in a city with definite food desert issues, is the price of food really the problem in an era when poverty and obesity so often go hand in hand?

The model of some discount grocery stores—especially so-called “salvage groceries,” which Bottom Dollar is not— is to move items at, near (or in some cases past) their use-by dates. They don’t tend to have big or robust produce departments, and often lack such supermarket staples as a butcher, a deli counter and the like. (This Money Crashers article recommends you give yourself plenty of time to inspect all dates.) What they specialize in is the kind of food—stuff in boxes, bags and cans—that food crusaders like Michael Pollan will tell you to avoid. Where Pollan would tell you to shop the perimeter of a grocery store to get the fresh, minimally processed stuff, discount grocers de-emphasize the perimeter.

What gets lost a bit in the discussion of America’s ongoing economic crisis is that we’re still in the midst of a full-blown nutritional crisis, one where the economically vulnerable, through some sort of cruel calculus, end up with a surfeit of bad calories. And that is, in part, a function of a broken food education system.

While more food choice is, in general, a good thing, and we ought to be encouraged by investment in the neighborhoods these stores are going up in, we should be careful to temper our expectations of what a discount grocery—even one that’s seemingly quite community focused—can mean to a community.

Organizations like The Food Trust, Fair Food, CSAs and food co-ops (full disclosure, I’m a member/owner of the South Philly Food Co-op), that strive to bring farmers, unprocessed food and, most importantly, choice into the city are probably our best weapons against bad food choices. Even if it comes to pass, as the authors of the new book The Locavore’s Dilemma posit, that local food movements are not as sustainable as people believe, there is still much to be gained from reconnecting city dwellers with where real food comes from.

Think of it as the Supersize corollary: More isn’t necessarily better; or, what’s a better choice: a fresh, healthy meal or five boxes of Crunchberries?

Put another way, should you really be waiting till you’re at your bottom dollar to be making your food choices?