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When it comes time to do your grocery shopping and load up on fresh food for your family, the local dollar store may not be the first place you think to go. Who wants to settle for wilted vegetables and sketchy-looking fruit just to save a buck?

But a new study says you might want to rethink that point of view – because discount produce at the dollar store is just as good as the more expensive stuff you can get everywhere else.

That’s according to the aptly-named “Healthy Food Options at Dollar Discount Stores Are Equivalent in Quality and Lower in Price Compared to Grocery Stores”, a study by researchers at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, published in the latest edition of the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

The researchers fanned out across the Las Vegas area, visiting 40 traditional grocery stores and 14 dollar stores. They rated each stores’ fruits and vegetables on a scale, based on their color, cleanliness, freshness and firmness. They also considered other fresh products like milk and meat, then compared the unit prices of every item.

“The most interesting findings of this study,” the researchers write, “are that the quality of produce items did not differ between the grocery and dollar discount stores, and that most items were less expensive at the dollar discount stores.”

Grocery stores did have a greater variety of items compared to the dollar stores, which is no surprise considering their size. No dollar store in the survey carried pears, for instance, and more than half didn’t carry ground beef.

But the dollar stores carried more than enough items to make up a meal, of similar quality and at far lower prices than the grocery stores.

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“The dollar store fruits may be ripe, and you’ll have to eat it soon, but it’s completely good quality,” said study co-author Courtney Coughenour, a professor at the UNLV School of Community Health Sciences.

Overall, the price comparisons found that 84.2% of produce and 89.5% of other food items were “significantly less expensive at the dollar discount stores”, with only bread being more expensive at the dollar stores. Items including bananas, watermelons, cucumbers, ground beef, low-sugar cereal, and chips were priced about the same at both types of stores, while most other items including milk, juice, frozen dinners and bagels cost significantly less per ounce at dollar stores.

The study’s findings are good news for deal-seekers who might want to save some money on their grocery bill without skimping on quality. But it’s particularly good news for lower-income shoppers who live in “food deserts” without easy access to grocery stores – and for whom dollar stores are often their primary source of food. Smaller neighborhood markets are typically much higher-priced than grocery or dollar stores, and sometimes offer fresh food of questionable quality, “further highlighting the dollar discount stores as an affordable option,” the study finds.

By adding more fresh foods to the stereotypical dollar-store assortment of “party supplies and trinkets”, the researchers write, “these non-traditional stores may serve to bridge the gap in providing access to healthy and affordable foods to communities who may otherwise lack access”.

While the study focused only on dollar stores, many deal-seekers have discovered the same situation is true at discounters like ALDI and Lidl. The produce may not stay fresh quite as long, but the quality is just as good and the price is certainly right, making these limited-assortment stores a legitimate alternative to higher-priced grocery stores.

But many other shoppers aren’t quite convinced, and still balk at the idea of shopping anywhere but their neighborhood grocery store. Shoppers “use price as an indicator of quality, thus, the lower price at the dollar discount store may result in perceptions of lower quality,” the study acknowledges.

“We are conditioned to believe that cheap, quality produce is too good to be true,” Coughenour said. She hopes the study helps to dispel that notion. “If the quality is good, and it’s cheap, why not take advantage of the lower price?” she asked.

So the next time you drop by your local dollar store, check out the selection of fresh food that you might otherwise walk by. Your family – and your wallet – may be happy that you did.

Image source: Dollar General

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