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, New Mexico, 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.”
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