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The Disappearing Wisconsin Rural Grocery Store

May 31, 2011

LYONS, Neb. - The local grocery store is an institution of rural communities and in rural life, but rural grocery stores are rapidly disappearing, making many parts of the Midwest and Great Plains "food deserts." Wisconsin has not been hit as hard as some states, but the Badger State has lost a lot of country grocery stores in the past few years. There are a number of reasons rural grocery stores are disappearing, and when it happens, it has a big impact on the local community.

Jon Bailey, director of research and analysis at the Center for Rural Affairs, says Iowa and Kansas have been hit the hardest, forcing rural residents to buy food at convenience stores or gas stations.

"That's important because it's going to affect the health of people in rural areas, and already we have higher rates of obesity and diabetes and all the other health conditions that come along with obesity. We have higher rates in rural communities and so, if we have less access to healthy food, I think that's just going to continue to grow."

Bailey says it's a real hardship for elderly rural residents to drive long distances to find a full-service grocery store. When a local grocery store shuts down, it's a huge detriment to the community. Factors in the disappearance of rural grocery stores include competition with large chain stores, high operating costs, and narrow profit margins.

When a rural grocery store shuts down, it can create a phenomenon called a "food desert," where residents have the resources to purchase fresh foods, but have to travel significant distances to do so. Right now, Wisconsin has only one county - Bayfield County - which is designated a "food desert," but Bailey says that could change quickly.

"Just because you're a food desert doesn't mean you're not without access to food, and of course in rural places there's a lot of trends that are probably going to end up making more places food deserts. As populations decline and as institutions like grocery stores disappear, then, more and more places are going to be classified as food deserts."

Bailey says a lack of available small business capital in rural communities is a factor in preventing young or new entrepreneurs from taking over or beginning a rural grocery business. He also pointed to a report published by the Center for Rural Affairs on how some communities are overcoming the challenges of retaining or reopening their grocery stores by looking at new models that work for rural communities.

That report is at ow.ly/526YP

Tim Morrissey, Public News Service - WI