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Draining The Food Swamp: Bringing Fresh Food Back to Rural Towns

AP Photo/Nati Harnik
Associated Press
In this Aug. 26, 2016 photo, a parking lot is reflected in the windows of a closed Hy-Vee store in Lincoln, Neb. The neighborhood is now considered a "food desert."

People have been leaving rural midwestern areas for decades. And it’s not just population loss. Often fresh food sellers move away too. There might be hope, though.

Tim Shelley reports on how four central Illinois towns are fighting for fresh food as well as community survival.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as a census tract with a lot of low income people or low access to a grocery store. Rural areas more than 10 miles from a grocery store qualify as a food desert.

The non-profit organization Feeding America says 2.4 million rural households face hunger and seventy-five percent of the counties with the highest rates of food insecurity are in rural areas. This includes central Illinois. Several rural towns have seen their only grocery stores disappear in recent years.

Delavan Finer Foods burned down five years ago, leaving the Tazewell County community without a grocery store. No one rebuilt it. In February of this year, Minonk’s Grosenbach Grocery closed for good.

Chris Merrett is the director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University. He said many stores haven’t been able to weather the hollowing of rural America.

“Grocery stores have always been a narrow profit margin industry to begin with, very competitive, and quite simply, there are grocery stores in small towns that have just gone out of business," said Merrett.


Dollar General stores and gas station convenience stores have filled the void in many small towns, leading to what one expert calls “food swamps,” rather than food deserts because they sell food, but it’s frozen or canned and not fresh.

Sean Park is the program manager at the institute’s Value-Added Sustainable Development Center. He said in many cases, Dollar General goods are just cheap enough to drive out mom-and-pop grocers.

“What happens then is the community is left with nobody that sells fresh produce, fresh meat, those types of items," he said. 


Park says he’s trying to helping Toulon, Delavan, Princeville and Mount Pulaski bring back fresh food.

Credit Princeville CUSD 326 via Facebook
The former Village Foods in Princeville

In Princeville, Village Foods grocery store closed about a year ago. Mayor Jeff Troutman said a school district survey to assess village food wants and needs garnered more than 400 responses.

Princeville School District 326 Superintendent Shannon Duling and Princeville State Bank are working with Sean Park and the Value-Added Sustainable Development Center to open a co-op grocery store run by the school district and assisted by students. Park said students in the high school’s agricultural program could sell their food in the store, and students with special needs could work there.

Meanwhile, Jim Nowlan is working to open Ben and Julie’s in a converted hardware store in Toulon. In addition to fresh food, Nowlan said the store will have a deli, a café, and a delivery service.

In this age of convenience, Nowlan said, it’s not enough to be only a grocer

“The need of the present is for a mix of activities, including a place to hang out, which many small towns don’t have any more, and also a place where you can drop in quickly and pick up high-quality items," he said. 


Western Illinois’ Merrett agrees. He said a small town loses something more than just a source of food when a grocery store goes under: its social center.

“It can be a real gut punch, if you will, when a small town loses its grocery store, because it’s more than a place to buy cereal," Merrett said. 


But opening a grocery store in a small town requires more than a blend of services.

Tory Dahlhoff is the Rural Development Coordinator for the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council.

“It’s kind of an all-hands on deck approach that’s needed, where it’s community-supported, but it’s also driven by technology and innovation to come up with some new models that don’t exist yet," he said. 


Dahlhoff says the EDC focuses on building a supply chain from farms to the dinner table. He said the region already has farmers growing specialty crops, mills processing raw materials, and community grocery stores selling the final product, but they’re uncoordinated.

“There are all these great little projects happening, but it’s not happening at any real scale yet that could feed more people," Dahlhoff said. 


The U.S. EPA’s “Local Foods, Local Places” program might also help develop a supply chain. Peoria and Mount Pulaski in Logan County are among 14 selected communities nationwide. Dahlhoff said he hopes having an urban and a rural community in the year-long program will generate new solutions to food insecurity.

Jim Nowlan of Toulon said small communities and mid-sized towns must find a niche as major cities attract more talent.

“No, I don’t have a magic wand, and so I don’t know the answer. But I do know the first step is to focus on what these small cities and towns can be," said Nowlan. 


Ultimately, the fate of grocery stores in rural America may be tied to the fate of small towns themselves.

The Regional Fresh Food Council is set to release its new study of the food insecurity problem in the City of Peoria and how to tackle it in the coming days.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.