Rural Groceries Find New Ways to Stay Alive

The grocery store can be a small town's economic anchor, so communities are fighting to save them.


Lynn Larsen, a grocer in Anita, Iowa, can easily tick off a casualty list of local competitors that have fallen by the wayside.

"A little town north of us lost theirs, a town east of us lost theirs," he says. "One east of us, rumor I had, is going to be gone before the summer is out. ... And these are all towns of 1,000 or less."

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Larsen owns the Main Street Market in Anita, Iowa—a town with a population of just under 1,000—and he represents an increasingly endangered species: the rural grocery store owner with a thriving business. And he's not alone. According to a 2008 study from Iowa State University, found between 1995 and 2005. At the same time the number of mega-stores like Walmart Supercenters or Super Targets grew by 175 percent.

The problem extends into neighboring states of America's bread basket. Of 215 Kansas grocery stores in towns with 2,500 residents or less, 82 have closed in the last five years, says David Procter, director of the Center for Engagement and Community Development at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kans. A look at the USDA's map of so-called "food deserts" offers a glimpse into the nationwide scope of the problem of grocery access. Food deserts are defined as low-income communities where either 500 people or 33 percent of residents are either one mile or, in rural areas, 10 miles or further from a grocery store. While most people living in food deserts are in urban areas, vast portions of plains and western states like Nebraska, the Dakotas, Minnesota, and Colorado are considered food deserts.

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But the implications of dying rural grocery stores go far beyond those stores' balance sheets.

Plenty of threats plague the rural grocery. Aside from the shrinking populations of the towns these markets serve, some food suppliers impose minimum buying requirements that are beyond what a local store can sell—forcing these small shops to pay surcharges for their minimal orders.

Then there are big-box stores. As massive competitors like Walmart Supercenters pop up in cities within sometimes an hour-long drive of these rural towns, residents are enticed by the low prices and other attractions of their more populous neighbors.

"We're about 45 miles from Sioux City, Iowa, and 60, 70 miles from Omaha," says Jon Bailey, director of research and analysis at the Center for Rural Affairs, located in Lyons, Neb. (population: 851). "A lot of people go to work in those cities, so we're close enough that if you're able to drive and can afford to drive, you can go to one of those cities to shop."

To be fair, driving so far to get groceries is less of a chore for many rural residents than it may seem to someone living eight blocks from an urban Safeway. But for some elderly residents of these small towns, says Bailey, it may be too dangerous to drive to the nearest store, and there may not be any family members around who can help.

And elderly or not, these rural customers are also spending extra money on round-trips that can last hours.

In addition to simply creating an inconvenience for rural shoppers, the death of a local market can fray the fabric of the community that depends on it. Pulling the regular commerce of a grocery store, which many people may visit several times a week, into the city could spell disaster for other retail and services that might make up a shopper's list of errands. Customers may pick up a gallon of milk and some bread at the store and decide to also get a hair cut, for example.

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"If you have to make a trip down to another town [for groceries], you're buying everything else out of town," says Larsen. He says that many people in Anita head to the town of Atlantic, 14 miles away, or even to the Sam's Club in Des Moines, about an hour's drive away.

Despite the draw of their more urban big-box competitors, some towns are finding new ways to keep their local grocery alive.