A small grocery store anchors one end of Main Street in the rural Nebraska town I now call home. If you live in a rural community, you understand that our grocery store is arguably the most important business in town.
The ability to buy healthy, affordable food in your community has gained attention lately with the term “food desert,” (a more culturally friendly expression might be “food vacuum”). Rural grocery stores are more than places to buy food, however — they are often the focal point of a town or neighborhood. They are places where people see friends, swap recipes, and catch up on local gossip.
As small businesses, grocery stores provide jobs and generate tax revenue that support the community. Everyone eats, and without a grocery store these food dollars will go to other towns, often into corporate coffers. Similar to a school, post office, restaurant and church or temple, a place to buy healthy food makes a community a more attractive place to live.
The lack of a grocery store means residents have less access to fresh fruits and vegetables; elderly residents and folks without reliable transportation will tend to buy their food at convenience stores with more limited selections or to go for longer periods of time between visits to the store. The proof is in the proverbial (or literal) pudding – statistics about obesity and diet-related disease in rural America show we’re not a healthy bunch.
Not all small town citizens are as lucky as we are in Lyons, Nebraska. Not only do we have a place to buy food, it’s an independent store, owned by someone in our county.
Local ownership of a grocery is critical from several perspectives. Economically, food dollars spent at any locally-owned business continue to circulate within the community as the grocer spends money at the hardware store or with the barber, further strengthening other businesses. Likewise, a locally-owned grocery store is more likely to purchase from a local farmer than would a store owned by a multi-national corporation.
From a community-building perspective, loyalty to a store would likely be stronger when you coach baseball with the grocer or sit next to her family at church than if you had never met the owner of the store. Local business owners are more likely to sponsor a soccer team or participate in the Memorial Day parade, all part of what makes a small town feel like a tight community.
In order to have more local grocers, we need to teach young people entrepreneurship as well as community pride and loyalty. I can think of no better example of a small town investing in its young residents in this way than Cody, Nebraska, population 149.
In the town dubbed “Too Tough to Die,” Cody students are building a student-run, straw-bale construction grocery store with the help of some federal grants and the support of their community. The students are learning marketing and writing a business plan; when they ran into some opposition within the community, they put together a convincing presentation that set their project back on course.
Even federal policy is beginning to see the connections between rural food access and rural health. President Obama announced plans in February of 2010 for a Healthy Food Financing Initiative to help communities who struggle with food access.
Two members of Congress — Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand from New York and Rep. Allyson Schwartz from Pennsylvania — have introduced bills along the same lines. Existing loan and grant programs are available to help grocery stores save money on energy, start or expand cooperatives or receive loan guarantees to begin or expand rural businesses. Even First Lady Michelle Obama is in on the action with her Let’s Move! campaign.
Of course, no food retailer is successful without customers who care. For a small town grocery to endure there must be an involved community, people who know the importance and convenience of a healthy food outlet and shop accordingly.
Steph Larsen is the Assistant Director of Organizing for the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Nebraska.