The Importance of Rural Grocery Stores

By Steph Larsen

Adams Super Foods employee Lorinda Buss checks out customer Amy Leibhart who stopped in with Emma and Isabella shortly before closing. (ROBERT BECKER / Lincoln Journal Star)

Before the era of paved highways and fast cars where we could quickly travel miles to the nearest city, it used to be that every small town had the essentials of weekly living - food, education, mail, shops to buy hardware or a pair of shoes, and places to socialize over a meal, a drink or common faith.

Most thriving small towns still have these essentials, and the folks who identify with small town living recognize the importance of each. Perhaps it's this feeling of urgency that the media picks up on when outlets report on small town grocery stores - like this front page story from Monday's Lincoln (NE) Journal-Star.

John Crabtree writes in the Center for Rural Affairs weekly column:

Grocery stores play a crucial role in our rural communities, providing vital sources of nutrition, jobs and tax revenue that support the community. Moreover, rural grocery stores are also economic drivers, community builders and meeting places.

They are, however, slowly disappearing - forcing residents to leave their communities to purchase food, often at great expense and over great distance. Across rural America, 803 counties are classified as "food deserts" where all the county residents are at least 10 miles from a full-service grocery store. The Great Plains has the highest concentration of food desert counties, with 418.

Two reports, written by Center for Rural Affairs Research Director Jon Bailey, highlight some of the challenges and opportunities associated with keeping rural grocery stores open. Rural Grocery Stores: Importance and Challenges describes six general challenges facing rural grocery stores, including competition with big-box stores, high energy costs and waning community support.

The second report, titled Rural Grocery Stores: Ownership Models That Work for Rural Communities, offers solutions to the challenges discussed in the first report and examines models of rural grocery store ownership. You can hear a short interview with Jon Bailey about this report here.

As John Crabtree sums up in his column:

The issues facing rural grocery stores are an example of those larger rural challenges. But at the Center for Rural Affairs, we believe the future of our rural communities holds abundant promise if new economic models are encouraged and implemented.

We can't take for granted that the small towns we love (and love to romanticize) will always be here to go back to. We have to support them today.