Ten miles for a loaf of bread

Once claiming to be the bread basket of the world, North Dakota is on its way to becoming a food desert, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For USDA, a food desert means that folks must travel at least 10 miles to find a general grocery store.

As rural North Dakota continues to experience a relentless migration to urban centers, churches, schools and businesses, and other local institutions have been closing their doors.

One of those main street businesses is the grocery store. But a number of small communities have been rallying around their stores to keep groceries readily available.

Among the town groceries known to have been fighting back are in Aneta, Binford, Bowdon, Drake, Drayton, Edinburg. Finley, Forbes, Hatton, Hazelton, New England, New Leipzig, New Salem, Scranton, Velva, Wimbleton, to name a few. It is likely that dozens of other small communities are struggling to keep their grocery stores.

To give the rural grocers information, technical assistance and networking, the North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives has organized the North Dakota Rural Grocery Initiative, staffed by Lori Capouch, NDAREC rural development director.

The Initiative has conducted two statewide surveys of grocers to measure interest in saving grocery stores. Over half of the state’s 123 stores located in towns of 2,100 or less indicated interest in new buying strategies, shared purchasing, pooling resources and other efforts to reduce costs and improve services.

Communities have used a wide variety of financing mechanisms to stabilize their stores. Around 10 stores have been absorbed by the city government; others have sold memberships to operate as nonprofits or cooperatives. USDA Rural Development funds have helped.

While continuing to provide technical assistance across the state, the Rural Grocery Initiative is launching an ambitious “close-up” project in the four northeastern counties of Pembina, Cavalier, Walsh and Ramsey and the Spirit Lake Reservation.

CoBank, a national cooperative bank serving vital industries in rural areas, has already committed $190,000 to the Rural Grocery Initiative and to the North Dakota Rural Electric & Telecommunications Center for regional study and strategy implementation.

The goal will be to create and test various kinds of survival strategies that small grocers can utilize, such as shared purchasing among grocers and partnering with other local purchasing entities (area schools, hospitals, etc.),

Lori noted that the challenge of change is formidable. Economic forces, primarily agriculture, are being modernized with high tech and huge equipment. To survive, communities must change to accommodate modernization of agriculture where 60-foot equipment can sweep through the north quarter in hours.

With the customer base declining, main street businesses must adapt to new and more effective retailing strategies. Among the first must be the development of customer loyalty.

The small grocers that have been reorganizing have wisely restructured to include the community with stock purchases and city ownership. Both methods put a dog in the fight and that will certainly command customer loyalty to “their” store.

All of this being said, residents of towns with struggling grocery stores have to decide whether they are willing to pay a little more locally to save their grocery stores or run to the urban center to save a few cents and get more choices. It’s that simple: your patronage or your community.

A well-stocked grocery store is pivotal when recruiting teachers, small businesses, technical employees or seniors. Newcomers are not going to move into a town without a grocery store.

Rural grocers will have an opportunity to share strategies and concerns at the “3rd Annual North Dakota Rural Grocer Summit” Sept. 10 in Fargo. It may be their last chance.

Lloyd Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota and former political science professor at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.