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National Rural Grocery Summit

group of summit attendees lined up in front of a coach bus
Rural grocers heading to National Rural Grocery Summit in Wichita, Kansas.

A town's grocery store is the root of its community, supplying local jobs and serving as a resource beyond job creation. Small town grocery stores are the town meeting place, they're the cheerleaders of the school and community events, and they both serve and purchase from other businesses in the community, recirculating local dollars. Grocery stores are closely linked with the pride of their community.

Kansas State University’s Rural Grocery Initiative (RGI) was formed to address the challenges that face communities when rural grocery stores close. In June 2016, grocers from across Minnesota joined University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP) staff to attend RGI’s biannual National Rural Grocery Summit in Wichita, Kansas – a summit attended by RSDP staff and grocers in 2012 and 2014 as well. The summit brings together rural grocers, Extension educators, community developers, representatives of nonprofit organizations, and others to learn about the challenges facing rural grocers, share success stories, and identify pathways forward. This year, RSDP also brought a busload of data to share.

Rural grocery needs

RSDP’s Karen Lanthier shared results of a comprehensive survey of rural grocery stores in Minnesota. In 2015, RSDP partnered with the Minnesota Center for Survey Research to better understand rural grocers’ business conditions, fresh produce availability and challenges, interest in locally produced products, infrastructure conditions, and energy usage. The questionnaire was mailed to grocery stores in Minnesota communities with populations less than 2,500. A total of 175 of 254 eligible grocers completed the survey for a response rate of 69 percent. Support for the study was provided by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, AgCountry Farm Credit Services, AgriBank, and Compeer Financial.

Survey results identified problems and concerns facing Minnesota grocers, and corroborated similar surveys conducted of Kansas grocers. Of the largest threats, competition from big box stores is predominant. Many residents in rural areas will travel 30 to 40 miles, bypassing their local store, and stock up at the supercenter in the larger town nearby. High energy costs also pose large threats to stores as outdated and inefficient refrigeration and freezer equipment dramatically increase the amount of costly energy needed to keep product in sellable condition. Also of concern for distant stores in rural areas are the minimum purchase requirements from distributors which, in dramatic cases, threaten the ability of grocers to be on the delivery routes of mainline distributors.

Potential solutions

To address these problems, leaders of conference presentations discussed a large number of potential solutions. In one example, Lanthier co-presented with colleagues from Kansas State University (KSU) on a project that provided nutrition education in rural grocery stores. Under a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agriculture Food and Research Initiative (AFRI) grant, Lanthier and KSU colleagues, along with University of Minnesota Extension Center for Family Development staff Laura Perdue and Elizabeth Quillo, worked with a store in central Minnesota to increase healthy food choices and provide consumer education, including highlighting a nutritional scoring system called NuVal being used in-store.

Other presenters discussed how to diversify retail options, or access funding from grant and loan programs. Attendees also discussed the feasibility of utilizing excess storage for food hubs.

From implementing strategies to increase sales of healthy foods and produce, to utilizing excess storage space to serve as a re-distributor for neighboring town stores, rural grocers are finding solutions. The 2016 summit served as a way for more than 100 rural grocers from Minnesota and Midwestern states to come together to network, share stories and strategies, and help each other overcome one of the greatest challenges facing rural America.

Kathy Draeger presents check to grocery store owners
Gosch's Grocery in Randall, Minnesota, received a USDA grant to provide consumer education on healthy food choices.

In small communities, rural grocery stores are a major source of local taxes, serve as important hubs for community members, and drive the local economy as dollars spent at the store are re-spent on other local businesses. While many stores face hardships, there are dedicated store owners and committed institutional partners such as the University of Minnesota Extension and Kansas State University’s Rural Grocery Initiative that have the ability to assist. The National Rural Grocery Summit brings attention to rural grocery stores’ role in ensuring strong rural communities.

Learn more

Interested in learning more about Minnesota’s rural grocery landscape? Visit RSDP’s Rural Grocery Resource page and download at-a-glance fact sheets from our statewide Rural Grocery Store Survey covering:

RSDP’s rural grocery work was also recently featured in Minnesota Alumni magazine and the Extension Center for Community Vitality’s Vital Connections newsletter.


Greg Schweser and Karen Lanthier, Summer 2016

Greg Schweser is the associate director for local foods and sustainable agriculture at the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships.

Karen Lanthier is a former assistant program director for local foods and sustainable agriculture at the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships.

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