Prepare for more food deserts

Accessing fresh produce and other healthy and affordable food will become increasingly more difficult over the next decade.

Nearly two-thirds of rural grocery store owners in Minnesota expect to step away from their business within 10 years, according to a recent Minnesota Extension survey. Many owners are aging out of the workforce and preparing for retirement. Only a fraction have adopted transition plans that would keep the grocery open and prevent possible food deserts.

The survey also found the majority of rural grocery stores are housed in older buildings, requiring significant upkeep — 43 percent of owners reported their facility was at least 50 years old, others (44 percent) were between 16 and 50 years old.

“With aging buildings and thin profit margins, I’m concerned we will see a continuation and worsening of our loss of small town grocery stores,” said Kathryn J. Draeger, director of the University of Minnesota Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships and a survey report co-author.

"Kadlec Groceries and Fine Meats" reads the sign on a family-owned grocery store previously located along J Street SW in Cedar Rapids. This photo was taken in 2012, when the building was slated for demolition.
“Kadlec Groceries and Fine Meats” reads the sign on a family-owned grocery store previously located along J Street SW in Cedar Rapids. This photo was taken in 2012, when the building was slated for demolition. (Dave Rasdal/The Gazette)

Although the last similar Iowa grocery store study was completed in 2008, the Minnesota findings echo what residents here are experiencing:

• In 2005, Iowa had 676 less grocery stores than in 1995.

• The number of grocery stores decreased by nearly 53 percent since 1995.

• In 2000 the average population considered large enough to maintain a grocery store was 2,843. By 2005, the threshold had increased to 3,252.

“Grocery stores are the primary source of healthy food,” said Karen Lanthier, Minnesota report co-author. “When they close, consumers face serious access challenges and, in some cases, rely on less-healthy food.”

Survey findings will inform the work of the Minnesota Good Food Access Fund coalition, which is working to create opportunities to confront the healthy food access and affordability problems faced by rural and urban residents in food deserts.

Small towns — especially those more than 20 miles from a larger urban area — face the double whammy of decreased revenue and an increasingly aging population that is less able to travel for shopping. Although typically living on reduced and/or fixed incomes, such residents are often forced to purchase food staples from higher priced local alternatives like convenience stores.

Lower income residents able to drive don’t fare much better. Increased transportation costs slice into any savings they receive by traveling to regional grocery stores.

And, the struggles faced by individual residents are compounded when the local grocer is a supplier to area restaurants, schools, child care, food pantries and nursing homes.

As more retail dollars are spent outside of small towns, fewer dollars are available to support local infrastructure projects, emergency services and community initiatives.

Why should an urban dweller care? For the same smart reason that city leaders offered incentives for Hy-Vee to remain on First Avenue: nutritional inadequacy and food insecurity lead to poor health and well-being, which results in larger tax bills for subsidized health care. And, in the case of small towns, loss of an anchor business like a grocery store contributes to regional economic instability.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on April 16, 2016. Photo credit: Dave Rasdal/The Gazette