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Spicer Grocery Store in Aneta, N.D., once sold fresh fruits and vegetables to its small-town customers, but the store is one of many across North Dakota's rural areas that has closed in the past decade. Katie Pinke / Agweek

Interim study to look at rural grocery stores, food distribution

BISMARCK, N.D. — An interim committee of the North Dakota Legislature will study how food gets into rural areas and how the system can be improved.

One of four studies assigned to the interim Commerce Committee, the purpose of the study is to look at the "distribution and transportation of food in the state necessary to the lives of individuals in rural communities and the roles of state entities in facilitating the movement of food to rural areas of the state."

The study was approved in Senate Concurrent Resolution 4013. The text of the resolution says 15% of grocery stories in towns with populations of fewer than 2,100 have closed since 2013 due in part to small profit margins and that a "considerable number of the state's population" has to drive more than 10 miles for fresh food.

Lori Capouch, Rural Development Director for the North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives, said the situation is actually more dire than that. She knows of five rural grocery stores in the state that are up for sale.

"I know of 10 of them that have privately indicated they're in distress," she adds.

Capouch took the idea of the study to Sen. Jim Dotzenrod, D-Wyndmere, who was the primary sponsor of SCR4013 and will serve on the interim Commerce Committee. After conferring with several legislative members in the grocery business, Dotzenrod concluded it was a needed study.

Dotzenrod says food distribution in rural areas faces the same issues as things like healthcare and expanded internet access: they're necessary for modern life, but how can they best be provided for in an economical way?

Capouch says people within the state already have been looking at the issue for at least five years, after a rural grocery store own called the NDAREC inquiring about whether there were grants for rural grocery stores.

"We got a lot of calls that year," she says.

The issue of the viability of grocery stores is one that speaks to the issue of the livability of rural communities. When a local store closes, the residents typically just drive to the next town to shop, Capouch says. But when the time comes to sell, how attractive is buying a home in a town with nowhere to get food? Rural grocery stores, she says, are the "pillars" of a community.

The NDAREC formed the North Dakota Rural Grocery Initiative task force to begin looking at the problem and possible solutions. Using a survey tool developed by Kansas State University, they've discovered some of the struggles and possible opportunities for food distribution in rural areas. For instance, they've looked at the possibility of small stores cooperating to make orders so that they can get lower costs, then using a central location as a distribution point.

The legislative study will look at ways state or federal resources could be deployed to help find a better way to handle things like distribution and purchasing.

Dotzenrod says it's possible the problem is purely economic, that "when we look at it that the resources we have aren't going to fit." But he's hopeful something can be gleaned from the study to help keep rural grocers viable so that people in rural areas can buy food in their communities.

"I think for those people who remain in rural North Dakota, there are many ways people can maintain a fairly high quality of life," he says.

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