Food Deserts Spreading In Rural Areas

beautifully arranged variety of vegetables

Tom Hunt couldn’t justify continuing seven-day work weeks in the central Illinois community of Pawnee without a return on his investment.

Hunt’s Pawnee Food Center closed in late January after 18 years. He is one of at least three proprietors of small, full-service grocery stores that closed in recent months, although there are plans to reopen a store in Nauvoo in western Illinois.

Ramsey, in central Illinois, also lost its only source for meat and fresh fruit and vegetables when its grocery store closed suddenly in December.

The precise number of Illinois communities that lost their last grocery store in recent years is elusive. But places like Cerro Gordo in Piatt County, which has been without a grocery store for two years, are increasingly common across the state and country.

Nauvoo, with a population of about 1,100, is one Illinois community that fought against losing its grocery store. Initially, Nauvoo supporters raised $130,000 of the $150,000 that was said to be necessary to reopen the Duck’s Foods store that closed in October. Subsequently, the scope of the effort was reduced and the community raised $100,000 for a scaled-down reopening scheduled this month with a smaller inventory.

Clive Moon led the community effort in Nauvoo. “People want the store,” he says. “We feel any community that loses a grocery store is on its way out, so to speak. It’s not as vibrant, kind of loses the heart and soul of the community. The grocery store and the public schools are probably more significant than any other business.”

In Nauvoo, most people now travel 15 miles each way to Keokuk or Fort Madison in Iowa for a full-service grocery store until their store reopens.

Some small towns, like Windsor in Shelby County and Goreville in Johnson County, have profitable small groceries led by long-time local operators with deep community roots. But other stores are on the bubble as they fight a challenging environment in which there is more competition, fewer customers and higher costs.

In a growing number of communities with a population of a few thousand, the term food desert, sometimes used to describe parts of inner cities, applies in small towns. 

The U. S. Department of Agriculture describes a food desert this way: “Urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may have no food access or are served only by fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options.”

All acknowledge the challenges, which include growing competition from dollar and convenience stores, higher costs of labor, utilities and other items that owners are unable to recoup with higher prices, and a mobile clientele that increasingly buys groceries in larger, neighboring communities.

That flight away from small towns leaves some older, less mobile residents with no good options. It also diminishes the tax base, reduces local employment and, some say, the long-term viability of small towns dotting the Illinois landscape. The trend also creates a public health concern as healthier eating choices are replaced with more options that contribute to the growing obesity issues across society.

“Business leads to business,” says Josh Winkler, the president and CEO of Dale, Indiana-based Winkler Foods, a supplier to 350 small grocery accounts in Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Kentucky. “The grocery store is usually one of the centerpieces of a community, one that brings people to town.” Lose the grocery store, he says, and the community no longer is a destination for people to find other items, which causes the overall business climate to further deteriorate, including the loss of jobs and sales tax receipts.

In Cerro Gordo, Mayor Brad Williams says people miss the grocery store that closed about two years ago. The store had the same owner for more than 50 years, was a social outlet and a place where many youth got their first job. “We’re missing the meat, the vegetables,” he says. “We’re in the food desert, but we don’t qualify for assistance.”

Most of the senior population has family to help get them to a grocery store in places like Decatur, about a 12-mile drive, he says. The senior bus goes to Decatur once a week and provides another option. For those who work in Decatur or other nearby communities, they pick up groceries on their way home. A Casey’s convenience store that opened about the time the grocery store closed filled part of the gap, too. No one has proposed reopening the Cerro Gordo store, Williams says.

Winkler says sometimes communities realize the importance of a grocery store once one closes, causing an entrepreneur to reopen. That happened in January in Morrisonville in Christian County, where Larry and Susan Langen constructed a new facility on the site of a grocery store that closed in 2012 in a community of about 1,000. Like other successful small groceries, the Langens’ Sixth Street Market has a deli and kitchen counter and received good reviews upon opening.

The store in Pawnee delivered groceries to several customers physically unable to come in and shop. Owner Hunt says more than 80 percent of residents work out of town, and shop in places like Springfield before coming home. “You can’t keep customers here in town,” he says. “It’s hard to control labor costs when business is declining.”

Hunt estimated the store delivers to a dozen seniors who call in orders every week. “They’re the ones who are going to suffer with the store closing.” One of those customers said she would have to go to a nursing home when the grocery closed.

That led Christal McClure, one of the Pawnee store’s employees, to hang flyers offering to purchase and deliver groceries to those unable to get out. “I said, ‘that’s not happening,’” McClure says of her reaction to someone going to a nursing home because of a lack of food options. McClure says she needs to recover her gas money but otherwise would make it a community service. 

“A lot of times you don’t realize what you have until it’s gone,” Winkler says.

In Ramsey, a community of about 1,000, Village President Claude Willis says there were two local grocery stores at one time in the 1980s. Now there are zero. Residents now drive 25 miles or so to Pana or Vandalia.

Willis says the arrival of a convenience and dollar store took market share, and grocery store owner Josh Miller told Willis there wasn’t enough business left to remain profitable. “They also had a hot deli (at the grocery) where people could pick up a quick meal,” Willis says.

The local grocery that often also includes a small restaurant component is a growing asset in places like Windsor, population 1,187. Bob Peadro and his son Daric built a new 12,600-square-foot store along Illinois Route 16 that opened in 2011, more than doubling the floor space from the former location.

Peadro arrives between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. every day, starting the doughnuts and preparing to open to serve breakfast beginning at 5 a.m.

“The key is finding a niche, something the chain stores can’t do or won’t do,” says Bob Peadro, whose first job in the grocery business was in 1966 while he was in high school. “You have to have a niche to get people in.”

Customers drive 20 miles to Windsor from Mattoon, Sullivan and other nearby communities to purchase the barnyard burgers, bacon chops and other meat selections. The small restaurant that is part of Peadro’s store has some daily regulars, as does his doughnut business. 

“When farmers are in the fields, it’s crazy,” he says. “Some days at lunch you can’t find a seat.” The Windsor store sold more than 100 taco salads on one routine day in January.

Walking through the store he designed, Peadro says you have to keep the shelves full and provide service like no other. “We’re in the people business. Customer service is important,” Peadro says. “Some of the older people who live by themselves, we’re the only people they see all day. Our checkers will talk to them. I tell the boys on the floor if you see somebody that looks lost, say ‘can I help you find something,’ and then take them to it.”

The challenge, Peadro says, is finding the right staff and niches that fit the market, like a greeting card case. The Windsor store employs 24 people and is the biggest employer in town other than the school district.

Another key is an engaged owner. Peadro, age 65, works every day and rarely takes a vacation or a day off. “You can’t hire it done,” he says. “Some people hear the alarm and want to roll over for a few more minutes in the morning. When the alarm goes off at 2 a.m., I’ve never felt that way.”

Bill Carroll operates the Goreville Food Market in a southern Illinois community with a population of about 1,000. “You’ve got to have good meat, service and friendly employees,” Carroll says. “People can go to bigger stores any time.”

Like Peadro, Carroll started in the business as a kid with his grandfather in nearby Marion in 1966. He’s been in Goreville 40 years, working in a partnership with his brother. The Goreville deli has fried fish and chicken. The deli is important, Carroll says, as is knowing your customers and what they want.

Winkler says meat departments and a deli are two common traits he sees in successful operators in smaller markets.

An initiative at Kansas State University works with nearly 200 grocery stores in communities with 2,000 or fewer people in an effort to address business development, public health and community sustainability through grocery stores, which are considered community anchors. The Kansas State initiative, started in 2007, has full-time staff devoted to finding solutions to help rural grocery stores survive. For stores in Illinois, firms like Winkler Foods offer program incentives for some store improvements. The Illinois Center for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University also has rural grocery stores on its radar.

Sean Park, who works with the Illinois Small Business Development Center within the institute, co-owned and operated a grocery store in Rushville for a decade along with his father. “Sometimes they sell for less at the big box stores than you pay for an item (at the smaller store),” Park says. “Everyone is so mobile. Now people drive all the time (for better price and selection).”

The small operator must comply with regulations that include handling government forms for ensuring labor is qualified, deducting child support out of employee pay by court order, paying minimum wage increases and newer regulations such as being able to track local produce.

“It’s kind of like death by a thousand little cuts,” Park says. “Everyone has good intentions behind these policies. But you’re one person trying to handle it all unlike a corporation that has more resources.”

Competition for canned goods and things like bread and milk is increasing from convenience stores, he says. But fresh produce that spoils is harder to handle and less accessible when the grocery store closes. “We’re surrounded by corn but a lot of small towns are in the food desert for fresh produce and meat,” Park says.

When financing a store, banks generally don’t look favorably on much of the inventory and specialized equipment in grocery stores, Park says. “And it’s hard to find somebody with the money [for] a startup.”

Park noted the effort in Nauvoo for a co-op type arrangement, similar to the rural electrification efforts from the 1930s, is one approach that has been tried in some of the Kansas markets. In Illinois, one store partnered with a local pharmacy to keep a local grocery option.

The hardship when a store closes, Park says, is on the very low-income people with limited access to transportation, the handicapped and the elderly. “It’s socio-economic issues like these that hit the lowest income first.”

Park says it’s also difficult to find a new generation of owners willing to commit the time and effort it takes to make a rural grocery store succeed. Most stores are open every day, require some daily food preparation and a broad skill set ranging from managing employees to inventory to cash flow and other business management issues.

Whether Illinois is ready to invest in the possibility of keeping more of the core of its small towns remains to be seen. But in places like Nauvoo, the community is taking action now.

Carl Walworth was interviewed by Illinois Public Media's Bill Wheelhouse.

Story source: Illinois Public Radio