Feeding a Need Bigger than Stomachs

In the small Nebraska town I now call home, a small grocery store anchors one end of Main Street. Once a farm-implement dealership, it has nine aisles, a dairy cooler, and a fresh meat counter. It employs nine full-time workers plus various high school students, and its limited hours frequently cause this workaholic to actually leave my office at a reasonable hour. (It closes on weekdays at 6 pm, 7 pm on Saturdays, and 2 pm on Sundays.) Although I grow a lot of my own produce — and I still have an “out-of-town” list for things like wasabi, coconut milk, and other exotic items I can’t live without — I do the majority of my shopping at my town’s grocery store.

Why? Because, as you understand if you live in a rural community, our grocery store is one of the most important businesses in town.

lyons_1632Our store means more than just ready access to food and toilet paper. Rural grocery stores are small businesses, providing jobs and generating tax revenue that support the community. Without a local store, the payroll and tax revenue that our food purchases generate go elsewhere. When you have to leave town to buy groceries, it’s easier to pick up hardware, fill prescriptions, and buy clothes at the same time. The loss of a grocery store affects other businesses in a town as well.

Having a grocery store also helps attract new residents to a town. Similar to a school, a post office, restaurants, and churches, a grocery store makes a community a more attractive place to live. Grocery stores can also be social places where you run into neighbors in the produce aisle, introduce yourself to someone new in town, or catch up on local happenings with the cashier.

Case in point: while shopping this Sunday, I finally asked Sally, a cashier, what the big blue-and-orange numbers in the window meant. “It’s the bankroll!” she said, and handed me a punch card. I am now entered in a weekly drawing for $600 worth of groceries, but to win I have to have visited the store that week to have my card punched. That’s one way to build loyalty, and I now feel less like a newcomer and more like a member of the community. I’m in on the secret.

lyons_1633Not all small towns are as lucky as we are. The lack of a grocery store means residents have less access to healthy fresh fruits and vegetables, and the elderly and others without reliable transportation will tend to buy their food at convenience stores with more limited selections or go for longer periods of time between visits to the store.

Small-town grocery stores do face some unique challenges owing to the size of the communities they serve and the amount of inventory they can carry. An increasing number of creative solutions are emerging to meet these challenges. The best examples begin within the community and help residents identify a solution that works for their particular locale. Here are ways that several rural communities are keeping the grocery store open in their town.

Local ownership:  When city leaders in Stapleton, Nebraska, found that 95 percent of respondents to a survey wanted a grocery store in town, a local resident stepped up to the challenge and with the help of two local investors, a new store was under way. Many rural grocery stores are already owned by local businesspeople who understand the importance of their store to the community. Communities that are losing a store owned by an outside investor or regional chain should look inward for someone from the community willing to operate the store.

Cooperative ownership: A half hour was too far to drive to buy groceries for residents of Walsh, Colorado, reports the Denver Post, so this town of 723 people decided to solve the problem themselves. Over 300 of them pooled their money to re-open the grocery store. A $160,000 interest-free loan helped restock the shelves, and they were in business. One secret to their success is community engagement – residents know that the success of this cooperative venture depends on residents spending their grocery money in Walsh, and the store can be more responsive to the needs of the community because its members are co-owners.

Youth affiliated: About 10 years ago, the Nebraska Sandhills community of Arthur, Nebraska, lost their grocery store. With residents forced to drive 40 miles for groceries and some elderly residents relying on neighbors for delivery, community leaders decided to act. They enlisted an extracurricular entrepreneurial business development program with high school students: eight students undertook market research, identified support, rented a building, and, by the end of the year, opened the Wolf Den grocery store. (The school mascot is a wolf.) The grocery store in this town of just 144 people remains open to this day.

There are times when I worry about not having access to organic produce, or that the grocery distributor will someday choose not to deliver to my town’s store and I’ll be forced to take my food dollars somewhere else. But for now, I choose to support my community by shopping locally.

Wish me luck on winning next week’s bankroll!

Related articles:

The local grocery store as critical infrastructure
When exploring what infrastructure is critical to keeping a rural community vibrant, the Center for Rural Affairs staff kept coming up with two pieces: a school and a local grocery store. There are many more, to be sure, that contribute to a town's viability but the local grocery store is certainly among the first to mind. This piece explores that need. [More...]

America's youngest grocer: Nick Graham
As the Center of Rural Affairs' Brian Depew wrote of the then 17-year-old Nick Graham, who brought and took over Truman, Minnesota’s only grocery store when it closed: "Rural main streets across America are struggling to survive, and the shuttering of a grocery store, drug store or hardware store is all too common. As Nick is demonstrating though, innovation, new energy, and the commitment of a new generation can help turn around the fate of a small town." [More...]

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