June 15, 2024

Local Grocery Stores Essential To Our Communities

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Our rural grocery stores are essential fixtures of our communities that deserve far more support from the public than they are getting today. It is up to each of us to ensure their future and ability to expand what they offer their customers. 

“Rural grocery stores play three key roles in their communities: they boost local economies, they support community health, and they promote community vibrancy,” Rial Carver, the Kansas State program Leader and Extension Specialist, wrote in December 2021. 

Our challenge in supporting our local grocery stores is made more difficult when a study highlights how much more expensive one of our local grocery stores is compared to Walmart. This comparison lacks full disclosure of the expenses associated with shopping out of town and the special offers they provide through their weekly sales advertised in their newspaper and shopper flyers.

This past week, MinnPost published a story about a study on food security for the residents of Stevens County conducted by the Center for Small Towns at the University of Minnesota-Morris. The study was motivated by the financial challenges people faced during the COVID-19 pandemic years of 2020 and 2021.

While Morris and Stevens County were the focus of the study, it could apply to every rural county with community grocery stores that must compete with chain-owned big box stores in regional centers.

Food security is defined as having ready access to affordable, nutritious food. It is access to foods that support a healthy lifestyle and meet the needs of people with special dietary requests.

Through a survey of county residents, the center found that just over one-fifth felt they were faced with food insecurity to some degree. Sixty-six percent said they were faced with “at least one barrier to food access with the top barrier being the time of year (availability of garden produce) followed by distance to food sources,” Ava Kian of MinnPost writes.

The center compared food costs at a local Stevens County grocery store to those at Walmart in Alexandria, 43 miles away. It used the USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan to build its shopping list. The plan uses recommended dietary guidance, a limited food budget, and foods that support a healthy lifestyle for a family of four. It incorporates information on what people typically buy and eat.

Not surprisingly, the number one ask of those with lower incomes suffering food buying insecurity is “lower prices.” They would like to see more grocery stores, more food variety, more education about food buying options, more assistance from government programs, and access to community gardens. They say there is a need to expand the selection for those with specialized diets, including those who are gluten intolerant or who are vegans.

Public transportation with longer hours and weekend service, service that extends to the communities around the county seat where there is a local grocery store, would be helpful. It has even been suggested that bus service to regional grocery stores would be beneficial. However, such a service would weaken our local stores, and many taxpayers would object to their dollars being used to help people spend money out of town.

Do a better job of educating the public rather than facilitating their leaving town. 

There was a time when the Extension Service was a close partner with community newspapers, providing articles on a variety of agricultural and home economics topics. Now, it almost exclusively posts its columns to its website, which we would bet are rarely seen by the residents of our communities.

We would strongly encourage the Extension Service to assign columnists to write on topics important to rural residents, including nutrition. These columns could educate residents on “supplemental and emergency food sources and programs.” They could also discuss cooking from scratch and provide advice on extending one’s food budget.

It should come as no surprise that a local family-owned grocery store can’t compete on many items with a multi-national corporation worth nearly half a trillion dollars. However, its study doesn’t accurately reflect the cost of the grocery bags a family brings home from Alexandria or any other regional grocery store.

“Patrons of the large stores often don’t consider the cost of driving to the corporate store as well as the time it takes,” an article published by the University of Nebraska states. “Those costs can offset at least a portion of the perceived higher prices at their local store.”

At the IRS mileage rate of 67 cents per mile, it would cost a person nearly $58 to drive from Morris to Alexandria and back. If you take that expense off your grocery bill, your savings at  Walmart are slim at best.

There is also the time involved. It means being on the road for nearly two hours rather than having a grocery store minutes away. In the winter, this drive becomes longer and more hazardous.

Our local food shelves offer food for free, allowing people to subsidize their food purchases to offset higher local grocery store costs. However, some foods are in short supply. Community gardens and farmer’s markets offer nutritious foods at a low cost. The Center for Small Towns says ideas are being explored for setting up community greenhouses to extend vegetable growing.

The researchers say additional study is needed to develop solutions to address food insecurity in western Minnesota. They are surveying residents of Traverse, Douglas, Grant, and Pope counties and will “work with appropriate community partners and stakeholders as we move toward identifying and implementing ways of addressing community and individual food security issues.”

If we lose our rural grocery stores, you will be driving long distances for your groceries. You will be buying at a much higher cost from convenience stores with a very limited selection of nutritious foods. The community will lose a social gathering place. It will lose economic vitality. 

Pursue solutions that support our local grocery stores, nutritious options for residents, and shop local.

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