Can’t buy the food for the farms
Abandoned grocery stores can be found in many rural communities, leaving residents with minimal healthy options. Standing in the middle of a grassy field just outside Cody, Neb., population 130, John Johnson, village board chairman, points to the .96-acre of land where the town’s new grocery store will be built.
“It’s a perfect location,” he says via video report by Harvest Public Media (HPM), a collaborative National Public Radio project dedicated to covering food, fuel and agriculture in Midwestern communities. “We couldn’t ask for any better.”
Clay Masters, HPM reporter, says the grocery store is especially important to Cody because the town is located in the center of a rural food desert, which the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines as anywhere residents have to travel 10 or more miles to reach a full-service grocery store (or more than one mile in urban areas). Approximately 23.5 million Americans live in a food desert and experience a lack of ready access to fresh, healthy and affordable food, which contributes to a poor diet and can lead to higher rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
“The residents [of Cody] have to travel up to 40 miles to get to the nearest store,” Masters explains. “There was a store in town 10 years ago, but it closed. One woman has lived there since 1963, and she said that when someone stops through while driving along Highway 20 and asks where the nearest store is, when they say they don’t have one, people wonder, ‘What’s wrong? Why can’t we buy groceries here?’ It creates a certain vulnerability.”
A desert in relationships
Masters says that when stores close, individuals in small towns often have trouble opening new ones because running a viable, profitable independent business is always a challenge, particularly in places with populations as small as Cody. That’s why community leaders in Cody are utilizing a USDA grant to make their store a certified nonprofit, which will be used as a part of hands-on business curriculum for local high school students. It will also be constructed using energy-efficient hay bales.
“[In small towns] there are often not enough people to sustain that kind of business, and individuals can’t support long-term debt,” Masters explains. “The key is finding innovative solutions.”
In addition to the lack of access to nutritious sustenance, food deserts also contribute to the dissolution of rural communities.
“In rural situations, the grocery store closing is another example of the community’s fading,” Masters says. “It’s a sense of your community going away.”
According to Steph Larsen, Center for Rural Affairs assistant director of organizing, a grocery store is vital to a rural community because it connects townspeople.
“Grocery stores are more than just stores, because everyone needs to eat, and everyone needs a place to access healthy food,” she explains. “It’s different than when the dress shop closes, or the hardware store closes, because they don’t share that sort of role as a cornerstone business. Grocery stores are also places where people socialize.”
Because many small businesses must compete with large, national retailers, Larsen points out that the support of the community is also vital to the survival of independent businesses.
“Towns can check in with the grocer and make sure they’re doing okay,” she says. “They can shop at the local store, which is extremely important. Grocers can also involve the community more by being out on the floor, knowing people’s names and being open to suggestions and products people want. That kind of openness is how a small grocery store competes with something like Wal-Mart or any big-box store. It’s the feeling of customer service, and if people feel good when they walk in the door, they’re going to remember that.”
In a movement away from national chains and industrialized food production, Dennis Berens, Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services director and National Rural Health Association past-president, has witnessed communities return to relationships with their food and those who grow it by shopping at farmers’ markets.
“Part of the food desert may be the fact that we allowed a desert in relationships to be established,” he says. “But I see families every week selling whatever they’re harvesting. We have a new food-relational model that’s beginning to be reestablished. It’s the relation between the producer, the person who creates something from the product, and the consumer, who knows the people between all of this.”
Berens says that moving food growth, harvesting and production back to the local or regional level will help rebuild and sustain communities by creating a food supply as well as employment opportunities. He also views rural food shortages and rural health care shortages as parallel problems.
“I liken what’s going on with food to what’s going on in health care delivery systems,” he says. “The common word is access. Do you have access to healthy food that will nourish your body and become a positive determinant of health? Do you have access to quality health care providers who will care for your body and mind? The linkage is health and access, as well as food and health. From my perspective, you have a responsibility to not only help that community survive but also to grow and prosper.”
But one possible concern about moving food production to the local level – and increasing availability of fruits and vegetables in general – is that fresh, locally produced food is often more expensive than processed, pre-packaged foods. Additionally, extreme weather in some regions, particularly during the winter months, can make local farming challenging if not impossible.
According to California Watch, a nonprofit branch of the Center for Investigative Reporting that’s located in a state where more than 1 million people live in a food desert, merely building more grocery stores will not solve the problem. Because the majority of food deserts are located in economically disadvantaged areas, the healthy option must also become the easy, default, affordable option, says a recent report.
According to Larsen, one way policies are shifting in order to ensure healthy food is available to people who need it most is by allowing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits at farmers’ markets, as well as including fresh produce in government benefits packages for seniors and moms enrolled in USDA’s Women, Infants and Children program. She also points to the Farm to School effort, which connects farmers to schools to serve healthy meals in cafeterias and promotes school gardens.
Overcoming financial concerns is a significant challenge in grocery store operations as well. Even in towns such as Cody that are able to secure grant funding, Masters says there are still significant barriers that must be overcome, and “there’s just so much red tape involved.”
“For example, they thought they could use any architect, and only once they had the plans done they realized they had to use someone from Nebraska,” he explains. “And the last time I talked with the village board president, he said it would cost $30,000 more than expected, and that would be money they’d have to raise. There’s a lot of frustration that they can’t get this thing built.”
Larsen suggests that community leaders should first ensure a potential store has the residents’ support before looking at issues of funding or grants.
“Instead of thinking of where they need to get the money, they need to think about where they’ll get customers,” she says. “There have been studies saying you need X number of population to support a grocery store, but you need much less if everyone in a community buys in. The very first thing I suggest to anyone is to get the community together and make sure this is something the community wants.”
Once a community does open a store, or rally to support the survival of an existing store, Larsen suggests considering ways to lower operating costs, especially utilities, the highest cost for most stores. The Rural Energy for America program provides grants for energy audits and renewable energy development assistance, she says.
“A lot of coolers, if you think about it, are open-faced, which is extremely inefficient,” she says. “The Rural Energy for America program can help do energy assessments for rural businesses and help with grants to purchase more energy efficient appliances or coolers to bring down energy costs and make the store more viable overall. Some towns have also used renewable energy tax credits to put solar panels on the roofs.”
Another money-saving suggestion Larsen recommends that can both help cut costs and rebuild a sense of community, is what she calls stacked enterprises, in which multiple businesses utilize the same infrastructure.
“The more people you get in the store, the more profit you’ll make,” she explains. “The pharmacy, the bank, the post office, coffee shops and restaurants can all utilize the same building and the same utilities. The more you can stack those things on top of each other, the lower your overhead cost is, and the more profitable your business will be. And the more profitable a store is, the less likely it will close and create a food desert.”
To use the United States Department of Agriculture’s food desert locator to discover the location of food deserts nationwide, visit ers.usda.gov/data/fooddesert.