Grocery stores are vital to communities, but many tend to forget just how important they are until they close their doors for good. They do much more than sell food.
This became obvious in Cody, Nebraska, several years ago. The community hadn’t had a grocery store in more than a decade. Residents were driving 76 miles round-trip for basic necessities. The school system was struggling to hire teachers.
“Once a teacher found out that they would have to go shop in another town after school—they just didn’t want to work in a town where there wasn’t a grocery store,” Sandra Renner, project associate for the Center for Rural Affairs’ (CFRA) Farm and Community Program, told The Shelby Report. “Once it started affecting the school and the pool of candidates for teachers, that’s when the school decided to get involved.”
The CFRA describes itself as “unapologetically rural.” Its mission is to make federal policy work for rural Americans. With help from the CFRA in securing a USDA rural development grant, students from Cody/Kilgore Public Schools opened Circle C Market in 2013 and continue to operate it today.
That model is unique because the school got involved, but the impact that not having a local grocer had on education in Cody does illustrate the importance of keeping rural grocery stores open. Renner has seen them shutter through her work with CFRA. The center has long advocated for the small-town grocery store.
“Since we started this (statewide food system assessment) effort in 2015, several independent grocery stores that were interested in being a voice for their industry on the (Nebraska) Food Council have had to make choices to close—so we know that it is happening,” Renner said. “We’ve had grocery stores contact the Center for Rural Affairs looking for solutions.”
Renner has worked on the CFRA’s Farm to School program. She said schools often turn to the local grocery store to help them procure local products through their distribution networks.
“They can trigger a local procurement through broadline distributors, and stores have access to that, too, so they are using the schools as a food hub in some situations,” she said. “At one time schools did a lot of their purchasing through the grocery store distribution chains. We are sort of seeing that dialogue pick up, where the local grocery store can become a partner and they start talking more about what’s available locally.”
Another issue for grocers in rural areas across the country is the proliferation of dollar stores. Dollar General has grown its presence in rural areas in the state, but in Nebraska, the stores do not sell produce like they do in the South and other regions—yet. Renner is conflicted about that.
“They’re perpetuating the food desert issue of access to processed, canned and high-sodium foods,” she said. “But right now, that’s a bonus for rural grocers because there are things that Dollar General doesn’t have that they do, so it keeps people coming in their doors.”