Grocery Stores Act as Community Hubs

Two new reports by the Center for Rural Affairs highlight the importance of local grocery stores to rural communities, the challenges faced by rural grocery stores, and how communities can respond to those challenges.

In Rural Grocery Stores: Importance and Challenges, we outline the data showing the slow disappearance of the rural grocery and some of the reasons why. While there is no national database that follows grocery store closing in rural communities, specific data does demonstrate the trend of the disappearing rural grocery store in parts of the Midwest and Great Plains.

  • An Iowa State University study found that in Iowa the number of grocery stores with employees dropped by almost half from 1995 to 2005, from about 1,400 stores in 1995 to slightly over 700 just 10 years later. Meanwhile, “supercenter” grocery stores (Wal-Mart and Target, for example) increased by 175 percent in the 10-year period.
  • In rural Iowa, 43 percent of grocery stores in towns with populations less than 1,000 have closed.
  • According to Kansas State University, 82 grocery stores in communities of fewer than 2,500 people in Kansas have closed since 2007, and nearly one in five rural grocery stores have gone out of business since 2006. In total, 38 percent of the grocery stores in Kansas towns of less than 2,500 closed between 2006 and 2009.

Like many traditional institutions important to the viability and quality of life in rural communities, the local grocery store is slowly being drained out of communities.

There are many reasons why this is happening, several of which are generally tied to the demographic challenges facing rural communities.

  • Declining populations mean that many rural communities are without an adequate customer base for a local store. In 2000, the average population needed to maintain a grocery store was 2,843. By 2005 the necessary population had risen to 3,252.
  • A lack of job opportunities in rural communities causing more rural residents to work in larger communities. Since 1990 the incidence of residents in towns with populations under 2,500 out-commuting (going to work and presumably shopping in other communities) increased by 72 percent.
  • The advent of corporate, chain grocery store facilities in nearby larger cities, and the relative ease in driving due to advances in vehicles and highways, often make shopping at larger grocery stores more attractive.
  • The combination of work and shopping patterns among so many rural people is also shown in consumer preferences of how people choose their grocery store. A 2007 Nielsen Company study found that 60 percent of consumers stated that a grocery store that “provides good value for the money” was the most important factor in deciding where to shop. Only 23 percent of consumers cite proximity to home as the most important factor.

The lack of a grocery places the community on a path for further depopulation and economic decline. New residents and young families are unlikely to want to live in a community without a place to purchase food, and purchase patterns get set as people start and become accustomed to purchasing food in another community.

Of particular concern are the rural elderly. As their “mobility and social support system diminish with the out-migration of younger family members,” they become more dependent upon non-local food sources to which they have to drive or find transportation.

Studies in Iowa have found that rural residents over 70 years of age are more dependent on the local grocery store and depend on others more for transportation for grocery shopping. The lack of resources and reliable transportation for many rural residents also raises the specter of hunger and unhealthy eating in communities without a local grocery store.

This is found in the most recent data on “food deserts.” In the US, 803 counties are classified as “food deserts” – all the residents of a county are 10 or more miles away from a full-service grocery store. The Midwest and Great Plains have the highest concentration of “food desert” counties with 418, and 98 percent of those counties are rural.

A survey of rural Iowa counties meeting the “food desert” criteria found that large segments of the population lacked adequate consumption of fruits, vegetables, dairy and protein. So the lack of local grocery stores can be detrimental to the health of rural residents.

In rural communities grocery stores are more than food retailers. They are also economic drivers, community builders, employers and meeting places. Unfortunately, many rural communities across the nation are losing local grocery stores, and residents are forced to leave their communities to purchase food, often at great expense and great distance.

Various perceptions about smaller grocery stores compared to large superstores are often used as excuses not to shop at local stores. Price is one. However, an Iowa survey found that when compared to superstores, many local grocery stores charged lower prices for basic food products important to a healthy diet. These findings demonstrate hope for local grocery stores in rural, low-access and food desert areas.

The second report, 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 and how they deal with each of the challenges facing rural grocery stores.

There are four primary models of ownership for rural grocery stores – independent retailer, community-owned, cooperative and school-based. The community’s characteristics, circumstances, and needs will determine which model will work best.

The independent retailer model is the tradition for rural grocery stores. These retailers are the ones most in danger, and they represent the vast majority of grocery stores leaving rural communities.

The other models are less traditional, but have successful examples across the nation. The community-owned, cooperative, and school-based models are all dependent on the people involved, their commitment and experience, and, most importantly, community support.

Many believe the futures of rural communities of this nation are very much in doubt, that the demographic and economic challenges faced by many rural communities are simply too great and deep-seated to overcome. The issues facing rural grocery stores are an example of those larger rural challenges. But we believe the future of these communities holds abundant promise if new economic models are encouraged and implemented.

The ownership models for rural grocery stores are examples of how rural communities can shape their own future. A rural community fortunate enough to have a local grocery store must support it to keep it. A rural community fortunate to have a citizen or citizens step up and start a store must support it to protect it.

Contact Jon Bailey, or 402.687.2103 x 1013 for more information.