Saving the Local Grocery

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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. 

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.

A message from the Rural Assembly

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