STEELE, N.D. — Melissa Johnson pores over bills and invoices in her closet-like office at the back of the SuperValu. One of her employees peaks in. A customer is looking for some pork casings, and Johnson replies that they should be in within the week.

The store is well-stocked, with just about any staples one would find in Bismarck, about half an hour away, and Johnson is always willing to get what her customers need, right down to the sausage-making supplies needed after hunting season.

She’s owned the store for about two years in this central North Dakota town where she grew up.

“It’s got its ups and downs,” she says. “The bills are the biggest struggle. There’s never enough coming in.”

Johnson, who lives in nearby Napoleon, has spent her life in small towns in central North Dakota and lived nearer to Braddock the first 10 years of her life. She remembers it as a bustling town. But that dwindled. Stores closed; the school closed. Now, she jokes, it has a “population of minus three.”

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Keeping the grocery store in Steele open is as much about keeping the community strong as it is about doing business. But Johnson reflects on the difficult conversations about whether the store is making money and whether there is a future there.

“Is it worth it?” she ponders. “I don’t know.”

Keeping stores like the SuperValu in Steele going has become a matter of importance to those involved in rural development efforts, as well as in health and nutrition. As the number of rural grocery stores shrinks, often so do the towns themselves.

But amid the gloomy outlook, new ideas on how to preserve the stores that remain and to expand access to food for people in rural communities have started to take root.

Food deserts and frontier land

Lori Capouch, rural development director at the North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives, received her first call in about 2013 from a grocery store owner seeking help.

Lori Capouch, rural development director at the North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives, is leading a rural grocery initiative to try to expand food access in North Dakota's rural areas. Courtesy of the North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives
Lori Capouch, rural development director at the North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives, is leading a rural grocery initiative to try to expand food access in North Dakota's rural areas. Courtesy of the North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives

“That one particular year, we received more than 10 calls from grocery stores looking for help,” she recalls. “And you just think, something has got to have shifted in the industry. So we did a little bit of internet research and we learned that it wasn’t just North Dakota, but across the Heartland states were starting to discover that their grocery stores were closing.”

The Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives started a rural grocery initiative and learned that much of North Dakota is considered a “food desert” — defined for rural areas as having to drive 10 miles or more to a full-service grocery store. Further, the group learned that with 67% of the state considered to be “frontier” — a place with a population density of fewer than six per square mile — stores were facing an uphill battle.

North Dakota isn’t alone in trying to figure out what to do about the struggles for rural stores. Capouch has contacts in many other states in the region where stores are closing, too. But North Dakota’s extreme percentage of “frontier” land means the solutions will not be a one-size-fits-all with other states.

Fred Wangler, who owns three North Dakota grocery stores in Casselton, Tolna and McVille, is a member of the initiative.

“We’re just trying to come up with ideas to get the customers to support the local business,” he says.

From his McVille store, it’s 35 miles south to Cooperstown, 40 east to Northwood and about 60 northwest to Devils Lake. He believes his prices are competitive — and often better — than stores in the bigger communities.

“You’re always going to find something cheaper, but then you’re going to find something cheaper at this store than you’d find at Devils Lake or Grand Forks or Fargo even,” he says.

The key, Wangler believes, is showing that his businesses support the community.

“When you go and buy out of town and buy in the big box stores, they don’t always support the local, so you need to keep that out in front and let people know that you do,” he says.

Wangler uses the mid-October snowstorm that dumped about 2 feet of snow on north-central North Dakota as an example of the importance of his store. Though he lives in Tolna, the storm trapped him in McVille. The store stayed open, giving people a place to get food when the roads were closed.

“We try and give a service they can’t get by having to drive out of town,” he says.

The challenges for stores vary. While Johnson has had success finding and keeping employees, Wangler says he hasn’t been able to find enough employees to expand his hours into the evening and Sundays in McVille.

Capouch says it’s not just a matter of keeping businesses alive. It’s about keeping towns alive. While residents of a given community might be used to having to drive half an hour to get groceries, they might find it difficult to sell their house to a new family. And without families, schools close and businesses can’t find employees. As things like broadband expand across the state, living in a rural area can be more attractive — but not without some basic necessities.

“I truly believe people will want to live in rural places, but if we don’t have, like, the basic things available, I don’t know if they’re going to look at those communities,” Capouch says. “I know my kids are grown, but I would have been stretched to consider buying a house in a community where I had to drive 30 miles for food.”

A search for solutions

Using a survey developed at Kansas State University with U.S. Department of Agriculture funds, the Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives rural grocery initiative group checked in with grocers across the state and connected with the operators to find out what they feel they need to succeed.

The group found some grant money to help grocery stores make energy efficient upgrades. But solving those problems hasn’t solved the issues of thin profit margins and competition on a variety of fronts.

Competition comes from shoppers driving to larger communities and from online options. Johnson sees that in Steele, many in the community work in Bismarck and shop there. But competition also has come, in many communities, from stores like Dollar General, which have moved into rural areas and offered lower prices on processed foods and dry goods, leveraging their lower wholesale costs to bring shoppers in. While people still go to traditional grocery stores for produce and meat, Capouch says stores can see 10% to 30% lower sales volume in the first year a Dollar General opens nearby. Johnson had owned SuperValu in Steele for one year when a Dollar General opened on the other side of town. Her second year in business was much harder than the first.

“I can’t say it’s them. But then, we didn’t have that the first year,” she says.

So, for Capouch, one of the main questions has been “can we purchase like Dollar General and can we distribute like Amazon?” she says. A pilot project in northeastern North Dakota will look at whether stores can cooperate in ordering and distributing their product in order to get better wholesale prices.

Capouch says other possibilities include implementing a system where shoppers without a local grocery store can order groceries online from another town’s store and have them delivered to food lockers in their communities. Such a system works in Australia, she says. Helping stores set up online shopping and delivery options is another possibility.

The North Dakota Legislature is conducting an interim study of the issue as well, and Capouch is optimistic that there are ideas out there to turn things around, but time is of the essence. When she started testifying at the Legislature earlier in 2019, there were 104 rural grocery stores in North Dakota; now there are 97.

She encourages people to shop at their local stores. Fundraisers, meal programs and other local businesses should consider whether they can partner with the local grocery store to help increase sales volumes.

Johnson wants people to think about the uproar that happens after things start to close in small towns before it’s too late.

“I don’t think people realize that … little towns start to die because things aren’t supported,” she says.