Proposed fund looks to improve locally owned grocery stores and food access in rural parts of NE

Feb. 9, 2024, 6 a.m. ·

A woman with pink hair dressed in black leans against a produce stand in a grocery store that's stocked with fruits, vegetables and juices.
(Archive Photo by Elizabeth Rembert, Nebraska Public Media News)

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Grocery store owners and managers in Nebraska are excited about the prospects of a bill proposed in the Nebraska Legislature. LB 1116 would create a grant or loan program for locally run grocery stores. A store in west central Nebraska said they could use this money to try and grow its customer base.

For fiscal year 2024-2025, the bill would use $2 million of state funds to provide grants or loans to locally owned grocery stores that sell perishable foods.

Stores in areas with low-to-moderate median incomes and low access to food would have priority. Those designations are defined on the USDA Food Access Atlas.

Nathan Mueller is an accountant for Post 60 Market in Emerson, Nebraska. He said a low interest loan or grant could help the store add more coolers and offices.

“A grant would be phenomenal, just helping our cash flow situation and helping the viability of our store long-term. I don't know if I could support anything strong enough, if it was going to help in those cases,” Mueller said.

USDA grants helped the Emerson store get off the ground in 2022. Mueller said similar aid from the state would improve small town grocery stores across the state.

Marcia Hora is on the Stapleton Market and Deli board of directors. Hora said the west central Nebraska store could use funds to improve marketing.

“There's a grocery store in Thedford, Arnold, North Platte — McPherson County does not have a store. So, I would say that that would be our target area. I would say just getting the local people to shop locally,” Hora said.

Hora said Stapleton Market and Deli saw a lot of foot traffic during the pandemic when more people shopped locally. Since then, it’s been more of a challenge.

Currently the cooperative store uses fundraisers to keep the store financially viable, Hora said.

But she’s glad senators are paying attention to the struggles of small businesses in the state.

Senators haven’t decided whether the program would administer grants, loans or both. There are 139 businesses in the state that would qualify for the program, 131 of which are in rural areas.

LB 1116 was heard in the Agriculture Committee last week and was introduced by Sen. Teresa Ibach of Sumner.