Even in an ag state rural citizens struggle for access to fresh food

CENTER – This town, the county seat of Oliver County, has one school, two bars, and three churches: Methodist, Lutheran and Catholic. The one thing they don’t have? A grocery store.

But they did. According to residents, Center’s last grocery store closed in March 2008 and has not been replaced. Now, residents’ only local grocery options are two aisles of canned and packaged food at the Corner Express convenience store, the nearest gas station for 15 miles. Residents end up making weekly shopping trips to Bismarck-Mandan, 36 miles away, where they have a variety of choices and can score better deals.

What’s happened in Center is an example of a larger trend occurring across North Dakota and the United States. Rural grocery stores, faced with increasing competition and ever- rising costs, are disappearing from the American landscape and taking some small-town charm with them. The loss of a local pharmacy, hardware store or other retail institution also can diminish the appeal of small-town life.

Senate Concurrent Resolution 4013, sponsored by Sen. Jim Dotzenrod, D-Wyndmere, would urge the government to take notice and consider ways to bolster food access and distribution in North Dakota. The resolution passed the Senate and a hearing is scheduled Thursday in the House Agriculture Committee.

Advocates say the time to act is now, before more grocery store closures with the resulting loss of fresh, affordable food options. One of those advocates is Lori Capouch, whose task as Rural Development director for the North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives is to “improve the quality of life in rural places.”

“We’ve been tracking rural grocery stores for about five years and collecting data from them, and they’ve been declining,” Capouch said. In 2014, she said, there were 137 full-service grocery stores in North Dakota cities with a population of 2,100 or less. Now that number is just 103.

The elderly, especially those who are not as mobile and living on Social Security, get hit the hardest when a local grocery store closes, she said.

‘Volumes low, distances high’

During a recent committee hearing, John Dyste, president of the North Dakota Grocers Association, explained why it’s tough for small grocery stores to compete.

“Rural grocers have experienced a decrease in distribution options and at the same time have experienced an increase in costs of product,” he said. “These increases can be higher costs of product because of lack of purchasing power and or high ‘drop-off fees’ charged by distributors.” These costs inevitably get passed on to consumers, he said.

“Our volumes are low, our distances are high,” Capouch said of rural stores. “It’s just getting to where it’s more cost- effective to drive to an urban area to buy all of your stuff than to stay in your hometown and purchase there.”

Center residents Judy Tveter and Yolanda Bittner said they usually make the nearly 40-mile trek into Bismarck/Mandan for their grocery needs about once a week.

Tveter and Bittner, both retired and former employees at Corner Express, said that Center’s elderly population benefited the most when they added a small grocery section to the convenience store. “Brands didn’t really matter. They bought it all,” Bittner said.

Tveter said that when she was working, people would often complain about high prices. As an example, a pound of frozen beef at Corner Express is $6.99.

“They would come in here and say, ‘Why are the prices so high?’ and I’d say ‘Well, you’re still buying it,'” Tveter said. The nearest full service grocery stores are at least 30 miles from Center, leaving it the only option if you run out of food in a pinch.

“Prices are a little higher here, but that’s convenience,” Corner Express store manager Cheri Miller said. Miller said Center’s location makes it cost prohibitive to order more groceries.

“It’s not profitable to keep a full-fledged (rural) grocery store going,” said Sen. Shawn Vedaa, R- Velva. “It’s a hard industry to go into.”

Vedaa owns a grocery store in Velva and has worked in the grocery business since he was 9, starting out as a bagger in his father’s store. Vedaa says that a rural grocery store is essential to maintain a high quality of life.

“I think the big thing for people to understand is how important a small-town grocery store is to their community,” Vedaa said.

Advocates agree and say that the presence of a grocery store can be an asset to help attract those who are interested in moving to smaller, more rural areas.

“There’s all this talk about how rural places are going to be the new cool place to move to,” Capouch said. “We have this great broadband structure in our state. But if we don’t have at least the vital services available in our communities, it won’t be attractive for people to move there.”

Darrell Itrich of New Salem described a California couple who got sick of the “rat race” and decided to buy a house and move to New Salem after a few Google searches without ever seeing it in person. He said the couple came to them when first snowfall hit and asked a question typical of newcomers to the state.

“They asked, ‘How do you drive in snow?'” Itrich said, laughing.

Itrich is on the City Council and works at Tellmann’s Market in New Salem, a relatively new full-service grocery store. The market, known for homemade kuchen, bread pudding, and knoephla soup – favored staples in this part of the state with its population of Germans from Russia descendants – opened in 2016 after the community’s longstanding grocery store closed in 2013.

“It was a missing link in the community,” said owner Allan Tellmann.

Allan and his wife, Debra, former dairy farmers, got into the grocery business with a business loan through the PACE program with the Bank of North Dakota.

Tellmann said after the town’s grocery store closed in 2013, residents would drive to Glen Ullin or Bismarck-Mandan to buy groceries, both of which are over 25 miles from New Salem.

New Salem sits on Interstate 94, making it much easier to distribute food to a store there compared to some rural N.D. towns. Still, the grocery business is tough, he says.

“Margins are tight. We don’t have the volume,” Tellmann said. “It’s a challenge.”

Tellmann knows he can’t compete with large stores on prices, so he focuses on “what they can do as good or better than big grocery stores” like customer service.

“Service will determine our success,” says Tellmann, who greets customers by name. “We never take our business for granted.”