Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Lawmakers ponder how to help rural groceries survive; surge of rural dollar stores is a new challenge

Rural residents often have a harder time getting to a grocery store than their suburban and urban counterparts. It's an even bigger problem for the rural poor, including seniors and those with disabilities, since they may be unable to drive to the store.

"The median distance to the nearest food store for rural populations in 2015 was 3.11 miles, and a shade farther for rural households enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps, according to a May 2019 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the program," April Simpson reports for Stateline. "A slightly larger share of rural SNAP households than rural non-SNAP households, 8% as opposed to 7%, were more than 10 miles from the nearest store."

Some states are trying to figure out a way to fix, or at least reduce, the problem. Rural-grocery advocates say tax incentives and subsidies have helped large supermarkets, but have squeezed out local, independent grocers. The surge of dollar stores in rural areas is also posing problems for small grocers, since the stores of Dollar General Corp. and smaller chains often have lower prices. However, critics say most dollar stores aren't a good substitute for grocery stores since they generally don't have fresh meat or produce, Simpson reports.

On the federal level, the Agriculture Department's Healthy Food Financing Initiative, established by the 2014 Farm Bill, supports healthy-food grocery projects in more than 35 states, but some rural grocery owners say it's difficult to access those funds, Simpson reports.
Mountainair, New Mexico
(Wikipedia map)

Nancy McCloud, who owns a grocery in rural New Mexico, told Simpson: "I couldn’t find any that was applicable for a for-profit business . . . If I were a co-op, yes, but a co-op wouldn’t survive in this particular town. There wouldn’t be enough [people] to help."

McCloud had no experience running or even working in a grocery, but decided to buy and reopen the local store in 2017 after it closed. Without her store, the 863 residents of Mountainair, New Mexico, would have to drive 47 miles to get fresh food. She told Simpson she felt that the town's continued existence depended on having a grocery store. "When you have a small rural town and the grocery store dies, the town dries up and it just blows away," McCloud said. "There are six towns east of here — they just lost the grocery store, then they lost the gas station, and then they lost the bank and now they’re nothing."

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