Supporters encourage lawmakers to advance legislation assisting local grocery stores

Small Towns

Carlie Jonas, policy associate,, 402.687.2100, ext. 1032; Teresa Hoffman, senior communications associate,, 402.687.2100, ext. 1012

LINCOLN, NEBRASKA – Jessi Chandler Mason said she and her husband Andrew “took a leap of faith” when they purchased the small grocery store in her hometown of Anselmo, Nebraska two years ago.

After the previous owner passed away, the couple knew it was only a matter of time before the store closed if someone didn't step in. The community was still seeing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Jessi said they knew Anselmo needed to maintain a grocery store for the viability of the community.

“Our journey into business ownership was fueled not by experience or financial abundance, but by a deep-rooted passion to breathe life into our town and keep the spirit of rural America alive,” the social worker turned owner of The Market and Mill said. “My primary mission in buying the store was and still is regeneration. Regenerating the land, our culture, and our community. Regenerating the very values that make us love our rural way of life.”

The venture hasn’t been without its challenges, however. Like other small grocers across the state, especially in rural areas, Jessi said they have dealt with low-profit margins and renovation, maintenance, and upkeep costs.

A bill introduced in the Nebraska Legislature seeks to provide resources to small grocery store owners like Jessi and Andrew who are fighting to keep their businesses open.

On Tuesday, Jan. 30, Jessi, with her son Max at her side, joined Center for Rural Affairs staff and other supporters at the State Capitol to speak in favor of Legislative Bill (LB) 1116 during a hearing before the Nebraska Legislature’s Agriculture Committee.

Introduced by Sen. Teresa Ibach, LB 1116 would adopt the Nebraska Grocer Reinvestment Option (GRO) Act and establish a grant and loan program to help locally owned grocery and convenience stores selling perishable foods invest in their businesses.

In her testimony, Carlie Jonas, policy associate with the Center, said independently owned grocery stores have struggled for decades to remain open due to people moving out of their communities, owners reaching retirement age, and competition with big box stores.

“The GRO Act would provide a resource for these businesses to invest toward their longevity and continue serving their communities,” she said, observing that in many rural communities grocery stores are not only a place to buy food but also an economic and social hub. “As a high-traffic business, bulletin boards are an ideal place to post about events, fundraisers, and ads. They’re a gathering place, especially those with places to have a meal or cup of coffee; and a place where residents catch up with friends or neighbors while they’re doing their shopping.”

Ibach said grocery stores are also important for the health of Nebraska’s communities.

“Unfortunately, food insecurity in rural areas has grown in the last few years, which negatively impacts low-income residents and senior citizens,” she said. “As more grocery stores close, other businesses are negatively impacted, which then leads to residents leaving the area or community.”

Speaking before the Agriculture Committee in support of LB 1116, Mitchell Schlegelmilch said he’s thankful people in his community understand the importance of having a local grocery store. Schlegelmilch is president of the Exeter Investment Group’s board. Four years ago, the group purchased Greg’s Market following the retirement of its owner.

Schlegelmilch said his community’s story is facing the same challenges and unforeseen issues that other supporters had noted during the hearing. For example, the day before a friend shared the details of LB 1116 with him, Schlegelmilch said a sensor in one of the store’s freezers went out, leading to a loss of $2,500 in products.

“For a small grocery story trying to break even, it was a punch in the gut. It took our breath away,” he said. “Reading the bill gave me a sense of relief that maybe there’s hope and more avenues that could potentially be available to us.”

The GRO Act, Ibach said, would allow qualifying stores the ability to make improvements to their businesses to allow these stores to remain open. Eligible grocery and convenience stores must be located in underserved communities, defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as geographic areas where at least 33% of the population live more than 10 miles from the nearest grocer in rural areas, or one mile in urban areas. The business must also employ 25 or fewer full-time-equivalent staff.

Jonas said the GRO Act offers flexibility for how the funds can be used. Eligible expenses include upgrades or repairs to facilities, equipment, or systems that will help grocers with cost savings and business efficiency.

Priority consideration will be given to businesses that are located in low- to moderate-income communities, can provide matching funds for at least half of the total project cost, and demonstrate a commitment to accepting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

Ibach said there are 139 eligible stores, 131 of which are in rural areas.

Representatives from the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association, Nebraska Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association, Nebraska Bankers Association, National Federation of Independent Business, and Nebraska Farmers Union, also testified in support. In addition, there were 19 letters of support submitted online.

John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, said one of the keys to a rural community’s sustainability and quality of life is its grocery store, especially if leaders want to attract young people.

“If there’s not a grocery store in town, trying to bring young people back to that community is a tough sale,” he said. “They want a school, they want a grocery store, they want a gas station, they want certain key stores in town.”

While no final decision was made on the advancement of the bill to general file, several Agriculture Committee members thanked Ibach for introducing the legislation.

No one spoke or submitted letters in opposition to the bill.

Feature photo: From left: Mitchell Schlegelmilch, Sen. Teresa Ibach, Max and Jessi Chandler Mason, and Center Policy Associate Carlie Jonas testified before the Nebraska Legislature's Agriculture Committee in support of LB 1116 on Jan. 30.