Center for Rural Affairs reports spotlight rural 'food deserts'

By Agri-Pulse Staff

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

Lyons, NE, Nov. 8 - The Center for Rural Affairs released two reports Monday, the first examining the critical role grocery stores play in rural communities and challenges faced by those stores. A second CFRA report examines models of rural grocery store ownership and how they deal with each of the challenges facing rural grocery stores.

In the United States 803 counties are classified as “food deserts” where all the residents of a county are 10 or more miles away from a full-service grocery store. The Great Plains has the highest concentration of “food desert” counties, with 418, and 98 percent of those counties are rural.

“The growing phenomena of rural 'food deserts' - the lack of outlets to purchase food - is affecting residents in many rural areas of the nation, no matter their age or income,” said Jon Bailey, author of the reports and Director of Rural Research and Analysis at the Center for Rural Affairs.

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According to Bailey, although rural grocery stores play a crucial role in our rural communities, providing vital sources of nutrition, jobs and tax revenue that support the community, they are slowly disappearing across the nation. In Iowa, for example, the number of grocery stores with employees dropped by almost half from 1995 to 2005, from about 1,400 stores in 1995 to slightly over 700 just 10 years later. Meanwhile, “supercenter” grocery stores (Wal-Mart and Target, for example) increased by 175 percent in the 10-year period.

“Rural grocery stores are more than food retailers, however, they are also economic drivers, community builders, employers and meeting places,” Bailey explained. “Unfortunately, many rural communities across the nation are losing local grocery stores, and residents are forced to leave their communities to purchase food, often at great expense due to great distance.”

Bailey's reports further explain that the lack of a grocery store means residents have less access to healthy fresh fruits and vegetables, and the elderly and others without reliable transportation will tend to buy their food at convenience stores with more limited selections or go for longer periods of time between visits to the store. Also new residents and young families are unlikely to want to live in a community without a place to purchase food, and purchase patterns get set as people start and become accustomed to purchasing food in another community.

Many reasons conspire to leave a community without a grocery store; declining populations, out-commuting - going to work and presumably shopping in other communities - and aging ownership and a lack of transfer opportunities may leave communities without a local store when owners retire or decide to leave the business.

The first report, “Rural Grocery Stores: Importance and Challenges,” describes six general challenges facing rural grocery stores: competition with chain grocery stores, coping with high costs of energy, meeting minimum buying requirements, dealing with labor issues, dealing with community support, and models of ownership. The report also examines the importance of grocery stores to rural communities and the people who live there. In particular, rural counties defined as food deserts or with low-access to food face significant economic and health challenges. A survey of rural Iowa counties meeting the food desert criteria found that large segments of the population lacked adequate consumption of fruits, vegetables, dairy and protein. Studies have found that rural grocery stores have “limited variety of quality foods” and “tend to charge higher prices for those products.”

The Iowa survey found that when compared to superstores, however, many local grocery stores charged lower prices for basic food products important to a healthy diet and that local residents took advantage of the small local grocery stores in their community. “These findings demonstrate hope for local grocery stores in rural, low-access and food desert areas,” Bailey said.

Bailey's second report, “Rural Grocery Stores: Ownership Models That Work for Rural Communities,” offers solutions to the challenges discussed in the first report and examines models of rural grocery store ownership and how they deal with each of the challenges facing rural grocery stores.

“Rural communities without a grocery store and seeking to develop one have four primary models of ownership open to them - independent retailer, community-owned, cooperative and school-based. The characteristics and circumstances of the community and its needs will determine which model will work best,” Bailey said.

Bailey added that the independent retailer model is the traditional model of ownership or rural grocery stores. However, these are precisely the retailers that are most in danger and who represent the vast majority of grocery stores leaving rural communities.

“Many believe the futures of rural communities of this nation are very much in doubt, that the demographic and economic challenges faced by many rural communities are simply too great and deep-seated to overcome. The issues facing rural grocery stores are an example of those larger rural challenges,” Bailey concluded. “But we believe the future of these communities holds abundant promise if new economic models are encouraged and implemented.”

To read the two reports, go to: and or call (402) 687-2100.

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