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Rural North Dakota Grocers May Soon Get Help From The U.S. Postal Service

Delaware Janssen

by Terrie Ellerbee/editor-Midwest

The Republican Party dominates state politics in North Dakota. With large majorities in both the House and Senate, state politics can be somewhat predictable, said John “Jiggs” Dyste, president and CEO of the North Dakota Grocers Association (NDGA). But North Dakota is different from most other states in at least one way.

“Any legislator can offer a bill, and if he or she does, it’s guaranteed a hearing and a vote. It can’t get buried in committee or ignored,” he told The Shelby Report. “We only meet every other year for 80 days. So, there could be 1,000 bills introduced. They have to all be acted on, so it can be kind of hectic.”

Some of those bills will be resolutions that take a few minutes. Others may be like the one that popped up on Jan. 9—the state’s ban on shopping prior to noon on Sundays. North Dakota is the only state that prohibits Sunday morning shopping. Moves to end the ban have come up several times—most recently two years ago—and have been defeated every time.

Meanwhile, Dyste is working with officials in Fargo and other cities to educate consumers on plastic bags, so that may help keep bag bans at the municipal level at bay. He doesn’t expect any preemptive bills to prohibit such things as plastic ban bags to come up this session.

Help in rural areas

Rural grocers in North Dakota need all the help they can get. One of the main challenges they face is the high costs of transporting inventory to grocery stores in rural areas. It is an expensive endeavor for vendors and distributors who serve those stores on a regular basis, and the independent grocers—and their shoppers—in those areas struggle when they can’t get the goods.

There may be help on the way. The North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives serves as the state umbrella organization for the various rural electric cooperatives in the state and operates the North Dakota Rural Electric & Telecommunications Development Center, which has a goal to support a higher quality of life in the rural and tribal communities in the state. The center has received a grant for a pilot project in the northeast quadrant of the state that aims to develop a transportation hub in small communities. Its ultimate aim is to change the way food is distributed in rural areas.

“They’re trying to work on a distribution system and a hub that maybe can bring product at a reasonable price so it can be somewhat competitive and have a variety of products so that maybe they don’t have to buy a whole case; they can buy portions of cases,” Dyste said. “The interesting thing is they have the U.S. Postal Service involved, and it has been a very active participant. They go to all these areas and many times they’re going with less-than-full trucks.”

Dyste is not sure what the postal service’s role may eventually be, but it remains a possibility that those trucks could be used to move groceries. In addition, North Dakota has warehouses and trucks in place for major emergencies that sit idle most of the time. Those resources also are being considered.

He said it is possible that a distributor or wholesaler could deliver to one spot where other trucks could pick up product and drop it off where it is needed. Dyste said there is an opportunity there if the logistics could be worked out. He used to own four small grocery stores. He understands the difficulties very well.

“I’ve always been kind of ‘you do it on your own,’ ‘you do it yourself,’ but some of these issues are such that you can’t. You need help,” he said. “There’s got to be a different way of doing it.”

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