In rural communities, grocery stores — part economic driver, part community builder, and part food supplier — are key institutions, according to an analysis by the Center for Rural Affairs. But keeping them alive isn’t easy. Profit margins are low in the grocery business, and most chain stores accumulate earnings through volume. At small-scale stores like the one in Walsh, the limited clientele means limited sales and, perhaps, bankruptcy. An analysis of rural food cooperatives by the University of Wisconsin found that the most successful stores were the sole grocery store within 20 to 30 miles — in other words, the ones that faced the least competition.
The arrival of dollar stores, and the closure of local grocers, can turn rural areas into food deserts. When fresh food doesn’t reach the people who need it, or when it’s too expensive for most residents to afford, the result can be a cycle of malnutrition, poor health, and poverty.
“I was skeptical when we started,” said Clarence Jones, chairman of the Walsh Community Grocery Store board and a former Walsh mayor. “But people were so enthusiastic that it became a reality pretty quick.”
Community-owned stores aren’t the only fix for towns struggling to retain their food purveyors. Small towns have experimented with cooperatives, public-private partnerships, school-based stores and even nonprofit organizations. And perhaps no community has broken more ground than Saguache, Colorado, a town of 500 that lies 35 miles from the nearest full-service grocery store. Read More