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.
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.