WASHINGTON – Nancy McCloud did not have any food industry bona fides. She had never worked in a grocery store; not even a restaurant. And yet three years ago, when her local grocery in central New Mexico closed, she wanted to offer the community (population: 863) the fresh foods they otherwise would have to travel 47 miles to get.
Mountainair, N.M., is a popular tourist stop because of its proximity to 17th-century ruins that harken to the earliest contact between Pueblo Indians and Spanish colonials. It’s known as the “gateway to ancient cities.” But without a grocery store, McCloud feared Mountainair might become another relic of the past.
“When you have a small rural town and the grocery store dies, the town dries up and it just blows away,” said McCloud, who revived B Street Market in 2017 and became its owner. “There are six towns east of here – they just lost the grocery store, then they lost the gas station, and then they lost the bank and now they’re nothing.”
Some states are trying to tackle their rural grocery gaps. Supporters of such efforts point to tax incentives and subsidies at various levels of government that have enabled superstores to service larger areas and squeeze out local independent grocers. Now, dollar stores are opening in rural regions and offering items at lower prices, posing direct competition to local groceries.
Critics see that development as a threat to public health, since dollar stores typically lack quality meat and fresh produce.
But every town and every store is different, making statewide solutions elusive. Some legislators say they are reluctant to intervene too heavily because the market should close the gaps.
In North Dakota, a legislative panel is studying rural food distribution and transportation amid a steep decline in the number of groceries serving rural areas. The committee is considering whether there are public policies that could work, said state Rep. Thomas Beadle, a Republican committee member. But Beadle hopes consumers will organize and solve problems on their own.
“North Dakota is a red-leaning state,” Beadle said. “We’re much more free market than having government intervention. It really would take a drastic instance for the state to step in.”
State Sen. Jim Dotzenrod, a Democratic committee member, said legislators are trying to understand the scope of the problem and whether they can do anything about it.
“One of the things we’re trying to decide is, are there state resources that are currently in place that could be of some value, whether it’s storage or transportation or things like that,” Dotzenrod said. “It may be when we’re done with this, we’ll have to say we don’t have a solution at hand. But I’m hoping that we can come up with some ideas that will help.”
In rural areas, the poor tend to live farther from supermarkets than residents with more resources. The median distance to the nearest food store for rural populations in 2015 was 3.11 miles, and a shade farther for rural households enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps, according to a May 2019 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the program.
A slightly larger share of rural SNAP households than rural non-SNAP households, 8% as opposed to 7%, were more than 10 miles from the nearest store.
In North Dakota, 60% of residents who are income-eligible for SNAP participate, according to Fargo, North Dakota-based Great Plains Food Bank.
“What we’re hearing from clients is that there isn’t anywhere for them to use their benefits,” said Melissa Sobolik, food bank president.
The perception that rural residents make a deliberate decision to live in greater isolation – and have the means to travel to buy the food they need – doesn’t help, according to Evan Weissman, associate professor of food studies in the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at Syracuse University in New York.
Rural, isolated areas lack public transportation. Traveling can be tough on the poor and seniors. Grocery delivery services, such as AmazonFresh, aren’t widely available or practically accessible to regions where poverty and technology gaps persist.
“Some of these changes that could conceivably help close this gap, in some ways, seem to exacerbate it as rural communities are left behind,” Weissman said.
In 2006, a 70-page report from the New Mexico Food and Agriculture Policy Council revealed the extent of New Mexico’s rural food gap, prompting legislators to act. The report found residents drove as long as four hours round-trip to the closest grocery, or even hitchhiked to avoid high fuel costs.
Lawmakers established a food gap task force that was expected to identify solutions. One idea was a state-financed revolving loan fund that would help cash-strapped rural store owners buy produce coolers or loading docks.
But New Mexico’s budget fortunes sank with the decline of oil and gas revenues around 2008 and lawmakers’ priorities shifted.
In 2017, Democratic state Sen. Liz Stefanics sponsored a nonbinding resolution calling for a study on the demise of rural grocery stores. But little came of that either. Stefanics said she is consulting with Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on the challenges facing New Mexico’s rural grocers and what might be done to help them.
“If states are going to have economic incentives, whether they’re loans, grants, deductions, I believe rural grocery stores need to be right there at the top of the list,” Stefanics said. “It’s not just about bringing in big companies from out of state to set up jobs, it’s also to encourage the economy within these small communities.”
Brian Moore, owner of Clayton Ranch Market in Clayton, N.M., and a former Republican legislator who now heads government relations for the New Mexico Association of Counties, said the group plans to discuss rural grocery sustainability at its meeting later this month.
In recent years, other states have tried to close their own rural food gaps.
In 2015, Alabama enacted a law providing low-interest state grants to new or existing grocery stores in needy areas. And in 2017, Oklahoma created a revolving fund for rural food retailers looking to finance the construction, renovation or expansion of their stores.
More recently, Nevada lawmakers earlier this year introduced a bill to create a $10 million loan program to attract grocery stores to underserved communities. However, an amendment removed the $10 million appropriation. The bill signed by Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak in June provides tax credits for eligible fresh food retailers.