The Local Grocery Store

Editor's Note: A few of us in the Center for Rural Affairs office are having an ongoing conversation about what pieces of critical infrastructure are necessary to keep a rural community vibrant and viable. While by no means a complete list, some of what we came up with include a school, a grocery store, the post office, bars and restaurants, and churches. A basic hardware store, general store of sorts and drug store are also important, though perhaps less crucial than a school and grocery store. This is the first in what we hope will be an occasional series of posts discussing how each of these pieces contributes to the overall health of rural communities.

Critical Rural Infrastructure Series, Part 1: The Local Grocery Store

A recent radio series on NPR called "Take me to your Leader" was, in the words of its producer, “an attempt to get away from the hype surrounding the political conventions in Denver and St. Paul, Minn. — and to talk to people from Chicago to Phoenix about whom they see as their leaders.”

Walsh Colorado Last Friday, they had a great piece about Walsh, Colorado. You can listen to the segment here and look at the photo gallery here (see photo right). Walsh has a population of 723 and the median household income was $24,911. This is a town remarkably similar to the Center's home.

As I listened, the segment told the story about the town grocery store, and this is where I got really excited. In their own words:

About two years ago, the company that owned the store said they were closing down and moving out. For a time, that meant a half-hour drive out of town to shop. That's when the community took over. A group of residents came together to form a co-op and sold $50 shares around town, and the store reopened.

Rick Mills chairs the grocery store's board. He also owns the auto supply store on Main Street. The grocery store, he says, brought in more than $1 million in its first year and has been the engine of the little economy.

"Once the dollars leave, they don't come back," Mills says. "They're gone to the city and that's where they stay. People from the city aren't going to come to Walsh, Colo., to do their grocery shopping — or any other shopping, as far as that goes."

This story really impressed me. The residents of Walsh faced the closing of a critical piece of their town’s infrastructure and the prospect of having to drive a half hour to buy food. For a lot of rural residents, especially those with low incomes and who lack reliable transportation, the closure of the grocery store could literally mean going hungry some of the time or having to make unhealthy food choices based on what is available. 

Not a lot of people would choose to move to a town without a grocery store if they had the choice of a different town that had one. Allowing the grocery store to remain closed would make the town less attractive to newcomers and perhaps continue the pattern of depopulation that many rural communities are facing. Instead of accepting that closure, Walsh residents figured out a way around it that benefited the community and kept a million dollars circulating in the local economy.

To me, this anecdote exemplifies the reserves of innovative and entrepreneurial energy that exists in rural communities -- it often just takes a challenge to bring it to the surface. It also highlights that success that comes with local input and involvement. Buying a share of the grocery co-op means that Walsh residents have a stake in whether the co-op is successful, and acts as an added incentive to shop locally.

Rural grocery stores are a vital part of the fabric of a community. Not only do they provide the healthy food that everyone needs, but they can fill other roles like economic driver, community builder, employer, and meeting place. Perhaps there are other voids that your local grocery store fills, and I hope you share them with us in the comments.

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