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As local groceries close, more rural areas in Minnesota may become ‘food deserts’

Mike's Market
Mike's Market in Comfrey, Minnesota

Almost two-thirds of the owners of rural grocery stores in Minnesota say they intend to leave the business within the next 10 years, and most have no transition plan to ensure that their stores will stay open after they’re gone, according to a study published this week by the University of Minnesota.

As the study points out, the permanent closure of a rural grocery store is not just a setback for a small town’s economy and sense of community, but also makes it harder for many in the town to access fresh produce and other healthful food.

“These stores serve populations in their areas that have limited mobility, especially the elderly who may not be able to drive long distances,” said Karen Lanthier, one of the study’s authors and an assistant program director for sustainable local foods at the U of M Extension, in an interview with MinnPost.

Sometimes, the next closest store selling healthful food is a 30- or 45-minute car ride away she added, a factor that is “a key reason why these rural grocery stores are so important.”

Rural grocery stores also often serve as important resources for community institutions that need reliable sources of fresh produce, such as schools, nursing homes, food shelves and daycare businesses, said Lanthier.

We tend to think of “food deserts” — communities where a substantial number of residents lack access to affordable, healthful food — as being in low-income urban areas. But, as this study makes clear, food deserts are present in many rural areas as well.

Survey’s key findings

The U of M study is based on data collected from a questionnaire that was mailed in July 2015 to the 254 grocery stores in Minnesota communities with populations less than 2,500.  Almost 70 percent — 175 — of the stores responded.

Of the grocers who returned the surveys, 85 percent said they own the building in which their store is located, and more than a third (36 percent) said they had owned it for more than 20 years.

Karen Lanthier
Karen Lanthier

A significant proportion (43 percent) of those stores were in buildings that are more than 50 years old, the survey also revealed.

As the survey’s responses make clear, rural grocery stores have large service areas. More than a quarter (28 percent) of the grocers surveyed said they have customers who travel 30 or more miles to shop in their stores, and 62 percent said the nearest discount grocery to theirs is 20 or more miles away.

But the key finding from the survey was the troubling revelation that 62 percent of the grocers do not intend to run their store for more than another 10 years — at most. And few (less than 30 percent) have a plan to hand off their business to a new owner.

When asked if she and her colleagues were surprised by those findings, Lanthier said, “Yes and no.”

“It was a hunch that we had, but at the same time, it definitely was astounding,” she said. “We thought, wow, this is something we really need to dig into more quickly and with people who can help in this area.”

Bucking the trend

Mike Wegner, 44, knows firsthand how challenging the running of a rural grocery can be — and how important such a store is to the health and social fabric of its community. Since February, he’s been the owner of Mike’s Market in Comfrey, a town with between 300 and 400 residents in southwestern Minnesota.

Wegner got into the grocery business only after a contingent of Comfrey residents approached him last December and asked him to run what was then called the Comfrey Market to keep it from closing. At the time, Wegner, who grew up in the nearby town of Butterfield, was working full time in the vocational training department at the St. Peter Regional Treatment Center and part time at the Comfrey Bar and Grill.

So far, Wegner is not having any second thoughts about becoming a grocer. “It’s a lot of work, but I have the gift of gab, so it’s fun,” he told MinnPost.

The gift of gab helps, for his store serves as a gathering place for many of Comfrey’s residents. “It’s really big with the retired community,” Wegner explained. “I have families, too, but the majority are retired folks.”

Seven or eight older people drop by every morning for breakfast, and another group drops by in the afternoon to play cards, he said.

Many of these people also do most, if not all, of their food shopping at the store.

“They don’t want to drive out of town,” said Wegner. “The closest grocery store is about a 30-minute drive away.”

Wegner also supplies fresh produce and other groceries to a local assistant living facility. “I’m starting to work with the school as well,” he said.

Needed: broad support

Although the survival of rural grocery stores depends primarily on the support of people living in those communities, all of us — even those of us who reside in the state’s biggest cities — can play a role in helping Minnesota’s small towns from becoming food deserts, said Lanthier.

“When you’re traveling through Minnesota’s rural areas, stop by the small towns and check out the local grocer,” she said. “In fact, it’s a great place to learn about what’s going on in those communities.”

Wegner agrees. “People put their blood, sweat and tears into these shops to help their towns survive,” he said. “So, when you’re in the community, support the local store. Support the community.”

FMI: You can read more about the rural grocery store survey on the U of M Extension’s website.

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 03/18/2016 - 09:47 am.

    My favorite small-town market is Zup’s

    We try to stop in any time we are in Silver Bay.

  2. Submitted by Larry Sanderson on 03/18/2016 - 10:22 am.

    Why not look at France?

    In small towns in France, mobile vendors came on market days with produce, meat, fish, and seafood. Bodegas or gas station markets could provide enough to tide people over between market days.

  3. Submitted by Logan Foreman on 03/18/2016 - 10:43 am.

    Why not just quit buying groceries from

    Walmart?

    • Submitted by Gerald Abrahamson on 03/18/2016 - 11:14 am.

      Simple.

      This group of customers does not shop at Walmart. It is too far away and they don’t fit the Walmart customer profile.

  4. Submitted by Craig Johnson on 03/18/2016 - 11:11 am.

    Small town Groceries Use ’em or lose ’em

    With both feet firmly planted in my eighth decade, I have an observation: Change is often just change, not evolution to something better. I offer two towns as examples -Annandale and Alexandria.

    Annandale population is about 3,300. Its is located 50 minutes WNW of Minneapolis and about 15 minutes from St. Cloud. Over the years, market forces saw the demise of a locally owned Red Owl and the emergence of a fine locally owned grocery store. Downtown commerce has been impacted with the disappearance of several core businesses and the growth of national based banking and even food service.

    In spite of proximity to larger markets the locals have sustained a population that can succeed without Walmart or Target. However the dark cloud of chain stores is a constant threat to the essence and vitality of the town

    Alexandria is quite a bit different. With its population of about 12,000 has become an regional anchor for shopping. Large chain stores put the eclectic and interesting parts of the town at risk. Downtown has been decimated. Vital stores are replaced with an oversupply of art, craft and antique operations attracted to the low rents of downtown. Locals have cast their community adrift and now flock to the wonders of mediocrity and sameness offered by Target and Walmart.

    The biggest issue with the demise of local merchants and the emergence of national chain stores is the utter lack of commitment to the community. National store arrive in the community, local merchants can no longer support their business and close down. Often enough the large merchants find out they made a marketing error and close down. Local merchants don’t return. The community is devastated and enters their death spiral.

    Moral:When you load up the family trickster to drive 50 miles or more be aware the town you return to will have changed, and likely not for the better. Be careful of what you wish for, it might not be what you were hoping for.

  5. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 03/19/2016 - 12:46 am.

    Public ownership – the co-op model

    A small town that wants groceries can set up a NFP co-op to make it work, having a non-profit or the town itself own the store, if a private owner manager isn’t available. Paying out some money to avoid the cost and inconvenience of a long drive would be worth considering.

  6. Submitted by Brian Klein on 03/23/2016 - 02:30 pm.

    Self Sufficiency?

    There is plenty of land in northern Minnesota to grow their own food, could people not do that? And there are a number of online merchants that sell healthy foods, one of them operating out of Northern Minnesota (Wilderness Family Naturals.) Food deserts are not food deserts when people are surrounded by soil that can support them. And we live in an age where we can have nearly anything delivered to us. It is a shame that many of these local businesses are going out of business, and it certainly makes shopping much more inconvenient, but there are options, especially if health is the objective. It can be argued that much of the food in a grocery store is not health promoting.

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