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Thoughts on the Dollar Store

By Donovan Glasgow, Farm Fellow

Here’s an interesting thing about living on a sustainable farm in an intentional community: I find myself buying myself more “junk” food here than I do at home. It’s counter-intuitive, I know; I’m surrounded by the freshest produce I have ever had access to, the pantry here is filled with jams and the freezer with fruits preserved for us by the previous cohort, and I’m learning how growing food can transform the food system. But after a long week of harvesting, weeding, cooking, preserving, and learning, what I want most is a pack of chewy Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookies.

Other fellows feel the same way. At the end of each week, we make our way to the Dollar General in Monterey to load up on treats and snacks. Chips Ahoy, Cheez Its, ramen, Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pies, Ben and Jerry’s: the essentials. Walking through the aisles with everyone is genuinely a joyful experience. We compare our hauls, reminisce about childhood snacks, and argue the merits of the more outrageous “innovations” of Big Food such as Flamin Hot Cheeto–flavored Mountain Dew or Blue Raspberry Icee–flavored Oreo cookies. When I reach the checkout counter, however, I do sometimes feel guilty. After all, couldn’t I satisfy my sweet tooth by making my own treats instead of giving my money to a corporation that is exploiting its workers and squeezing as much wealth as it can from rural America?

It’s a common question for people who want to transform the food system—how should we “vote with our dollar?” Some believe that the most effective way to enact change within the food system is to change your purchasing habits: shopping at farmers markets and Whole Foods instead of Dollar General and Walmart will alter the food system for the better, the thinking goes. It’s simple supply and demand. If enough people buy fresh vegetables, the free market will provide them instead of Little Debbie cakes. This pervasive ideology results in the guilt I feel at the checkout counter—the gnawing voice in my head is telling me that I’m not doing my part in the struggle.

This is, of course, ridiculous for many reasons. In practical terms, it is just as impossible to “vote with your dollar” in Highland county as it is to vote with your vote in a one party system. The county is a food desert, with the Dollar General and its neighboring Family Dollar/Dollar Tree combo being the only grocery stores in the area for many miles. But on a deeper, macroeconomic level, capitalism is incredibly capable of appropriating social movements that lack a critical analysis of our economy. Hence, the “vote with your dollar” movement has achieved nothing more than opening niche food stores and restaurants for affluent folks in the cities, leaving the underlying causes of the problems untouched.

I guess I don’t have any answers here, other than to say that living in a place like Highland County highlights the contradictions of our economic system and ideology surrounding it. We cannot commodify our way to social justice, and the guilt we feel at not attempting to do so serves no purpose other than to demoralize ourselves. If my time at AMI has taught me anything about transforming the food system, it is that it comes through building community and practicing solidarity with your fellow workers, not your wallet.

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