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Building the Resilience of Minnesota's Rural Grocery Stores

By Anne Dybsetter, Extension Educator — Health and Nutrition

In the next 10 years, nearly two-thirds of rural grocers in Minnesota plan to get out of the grocery business, according to a 2015 University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnership survey. Will the families, seniors, and newcomers in small towns and rural areas continue to have access to healthy foods at their local grocery stores in the future?

Rural grocers and others on the front lines of bringing good food to small towns certainly hope so. This August, a crowd of more than 50 such healthy food access champions converged on Bird Island for “Resilient Rural Grocery Stores: A Resource and Networking Event.”

Making Connections

The Resilient Rural Grocery Stores event was a collaboration among Extension’s Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP), Extension’s Health and Nutrition programs, and other partners. Organizers planned the event to connect participants with resources and learning opportunities about the best practices for building thriving rural grocery stores. Speakers, a tour, and time for discussion and networking made this possible.
“There were many resourceful ideas and great networking opportunities.”
— Resilient Rural Grocery Stores event attendee

Speaking to the Issues

Speakers included retailers and other experts who are knowledgeable in business planning, energy efficiency upgrades, promotion of healthy foods, locally-produced foods, and innovative models for rural stores. Two University of Minnesota-related speakers participated:

  • RSDP’s Naomi Olive spoke about a farm-to-rural grocery toolkit to be released later this fall.
  • Ryan Pesch, U of M Extension educator with expertise in community economics, discussed handling and displaying fresh produce.

Touring Island Market 

The highlight of the afternoon was touring Island Market, Bird Island’s recently renovated grocery store.

Event attendees in front of the produce cases. Photo credit: Anne Dybsetter.

Island Market's community-centered approach is clear. Photo credit: Anne Dybsetter.

Island Market is transitioning from corporate ownership to ownership by a small group of local investors seeking to keep the store from closing. Read more about the venture here: Bird Island opens old playbook to save grocery.

Making Space to Network and Reflect

Following opportunities for discussion and networking, participants reflected on what they took away from the event. Participants exchanged ideas about the challenges rural grocery stores are facing. Economics, distribution, and demographics, to name a few, can be difficult to address in areas with low population density.

But participants also celebrated the role of rural grocery stores — they are central to economic vitality, sense of community, and healthy food access in small towns. Almost 80 percent of grocery stores surveyed in 2015 said that they use local farmers as either major or minor suppliers for fresh produce.

More Information

The Resilient Rural Grocery Stores event was organized by Southwest RSDP’s Local Food Systems Work Group and the Extension Center for Family Development’s Health and Nutrition programs, with support from Kandiyohi and Renville Counties Statewide Health Improvement Partnership, the Extension Center for Community Vitality, and a partner and community member planning committee.
  • For more information about the RSDP’s rural grocery work, including the 2015 Rural Grocery Store Survey, Farm to Rural Grocery resources and the Fresh Produce Toolkit, see the web page Rural Grocery Stores
  • For more information about Health and Nutrition’s healthy food access work, see the web page Health and Nutrition: Special Projects.
  • To learn more about RSDP's 2015 survey results and how community members can help, read Community Vitality's summer 2016 feature article: The future of rural grocery stores.

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