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Interspersed among CVS’s glowing fluorescent aisles of laundry detergent, racks of Band-Aids and over-the-counter digestion remedies, there are shelves of brightly colored cereal boxes. Windowed refrigerators full of milk cartons and microwavable frozen meals for one are within arm’s reach of displays stacked with popcorn, chips and salsa. For the past several years, pharmacies have been quietly stocking and selling more food to Americans who are drawn to one-stop shopping for their everyday essentials.
In 2017, CVS held a 3.9% share of the grocery market. Walgreens came in at 2.4%. That may not seem like much, but it far outpaced both Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, which had 1.4% and 1% respectively. The eyebrow-raising figure probably comes down to an issue of scale – last year CVS and Walgreens each had close to 10,000 stores in the US, while Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods each had fewer than 500 locations. While the ubiquitous nature of pharmacies may help fill the grocery gap where affordable options are scarce, some researchers are concerned that this low-priced convenience comes with a high cost.
“Highly processed food makes you sick,” says William McCarthy, an adjunct professor of public health at UCLA. “CVS and other pharmacies make money selling highly processed, long shelf-life foods, because it is all convenient.” But, he says, his research has shown that it’s not just about having more healthy options.