Rural grocery stores are dying off. Here's what some communities are doing to save them

March 27, 2023, 5 a.m. ·

Someone checks out at the register of Circle C Market in Cody, Nebraska
A student helps check out a customer at the Circle C Market in Cody, Nebraska --- population 167. (Archive Photo by Mike Tobias, Nebraska Public Media)

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Rural areas are losing grocery stores to consolidation faster than their urban counterparts — but some communities have come up with innovative solutions.

For about five years, Emerson, Nebraska, had no grocery store, leaving residents to drive at least 20 miles for a full-service grocer.

Then last year the community came together to support a new co-op, and Post 60 Market moved into the old American Legion building.

Manager Brian Horak said the village of 824 people invested nearly $160,000 in the store.

“With being a co-op and so many people bought in – it's like you got multiple owners who have just as much commitment to see this thing succeed,” Horak said.

Investors receive discounts and dividends and elect a board of directors each year to oversee large financial decisions.

Yet in many small towns, a grocery store is a thing of the past.

According to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 76 counties nationwide are without a single grocery store, and 34 of those counties are in the Midwest and Great Plains.

Rural communities have been losing population for decades making it harder for businesses to stay afloat, said Rial Carver, program leader for the Rural Grocery Initiative at Kansas State University.

“So as small towns get smaller, that means fewer sales coming in the door for our grocery store,” Carver said.

Big box stores and grocery consolidation have added even more pressure on local grocers. A recent USDA report shows the percentage of grocery sales from the nation’s top 20 retailers more than doubled from 1990 to 2020, while the consolidation was more pronounced in rural areas.

The Rural Grocery Initiative was created in 2006 to help establish and sustain grocery stores in rural communities throughout Kansas.

Carver said innovation can help keep a store in small towns.

Rial Carver headshot
Rial Carver is Program Leader for the Rural Grocery Initiative at Kansas State University. RGI supports stores in Kansas and is a leading information source on rural grocery stores nationally. (Photo courtesy of Rural Grocery Initiative)

“We've seen success with communities kind of becoming engaged through cooperatives, through public-private partnerships,” Carver said. “We've even seen nonprofits and school run grocery stores, as well as municipally run stores in communities.”

The Circle C Market is a good example.

It’s run by the Cody-Kilgore school district in Cody, Nebraska, a town of just 167.

“We are vital to the community,” said teacher and store manager Liz Ravenscroft. “The next closest grocery store is 40 miles to the east, and the other closest grocery store is an hour to the west.”

The store got started in 2008 with the help of several national organizations and a grant from the USDA. The Village of Cody owns the building, while the school district and a local non-profit, Cowboy Grit, helped finance the store.

Each semester about eight students help at the Circle C Market as part of a class, learning important skills from Ravenscroft.

“I teach them how to do the different orders, like pop orders and chip orders,” she said. “I also have students that I teach how to do billing.”

For small stores, meeting the needs of an individual community is critical to remain in business.

Laura and Don Palmer first started Prairie Market in Paullina, Iowa, eight years ago. Like many businesses in the town of 952, they struggled at first. Then they adjusted their hours, staying open on nights and weekends to cater to their customers, who often commute long distances.

Prairie Market's teal, aluminum siding in a close up photo. Storefront displays "Prairie Market" in black letters
Laura Palmer enjoys the look and feel of Trader Joe’s Grocery Store, a national chain. She tried to emulate their style a bit when she and her husband, Don, opened Prairie Market. (Photo courtesy of Prairie Market)

“They appreciate the hours — that they can actually get here and on Sundays,” Palmer said. “They're like, ‘What did we do before you were open on Sundays?’”

Palmer said focusing on the fresh food helps them stand out from nearby discount stores. They also work to appeal to current tastes. Palmer painted the store’s facade teal as a nod to a well-known chain.

“My favorite store was Trader Joe's and that's kind of what we have tried to replicate the store after,” Palmer said. “People come in the store, especially young people, they want to come in and they want it to be vibrant and clean and organized.”

In Emerson, Post 60 Market manager Brian Horak said two things create success for rural grocers.

“Friendliness and cleanliness. That's the two key things,” Horak said. “I mean you get the Walmarts and Hyvees and stuff like that, but they're not gonna know you by name. We’re gonna know you by name. We're gonna know what you want.”

This story first appeared on Nebraska Public Media. This version was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM