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Cooperative Models Combat Food Deserts and Provide New Markets for Local Farmers

A small town in North Dakota has taken on the problem of rural food deserts.  People in the town of Bowdon, North Dakota, formed a cooperative to re-establish a grocery store in the town, and ultimately got the store re-opened.  The Bowdon Community Cooperative continues to run the store.  This concept deserves attention both as a way to combat food deserts and to establish new markets for local farmers.  The magnitude of food deserts in urban and rural areas is staggering: Across the United States, 803 counties are classified as food deserts.  More than half of these are in the Great Plains area, and most of them are in rural areas.  Even though rural grocery stores are essential to the survival of small towns in these areas, they are gradually disappearing across the country.

Why has there been a recent decline in rural grocery stores?   One problem is that the average population needed to support a grocery store rose from about 2,800 in 2000 to over 3,200 in 2005.  Also, the presence of corporate chain grocery stores in nearby cities–and the relative ease of driving to these stores–has resulted in fewer people going to the small, rural grocery stores in their towns.

There are several different models for providing food to local markets once grocery stores go out of business, or to address the problem of an existing food desert.   One model is the cooperative, which is an organization run jointly by a group of people with a common goal.  This is the model that the people in Bowdon used to start their grocery store. Community members are invited to join the cooperative, paying an annual fee and working on-site to handle the management of the business.  Another model is a community-owned grocery store.  This is essentially a corporation owned by the people in the community, with stock sold to local residents and a board of directors operating the store. Other communities are exploring the idea of school-based grocery stores, where students at a school operate a local grocery store.  This can also be a way to satisfy a community service initiative at the school.  School-based grocery stores are often small, have limited hours, and provide basic products for the community.

The town of Leeton, Missouri, has one such school-based grocery store.  The Bulldog Express, as it is known, was formed through the collaboration of the school board, school personnel, and members of the community, in order to help limit the use of gasoline at a time when gas prices were high.  The Leeton school-based grocery store aims to provide basic food products and local produce to the people in the town, while at the same time serving as a way to teach students entrepreneurial skills.

Rural grocery store (photo by jimmywayne on Flickr)

In order to better understand the possible advantages of these alternative models, I spoke with Bert Fitzgerald of the Monroe Park Grocery Co-op in South Bend, Indiana about his experience founding a cooperative.  He said that the purpose of the co-op was to help a struggling neighborhood, both by providing the local people with inexpensive, healthy food when the neighborhood lacks a mainstream grocery store, and also by providing a neighborhood nucleus.  Bert said that this model could work in other struggling food deserts: “Many other cities and small towns have a demand for food that’s cheap and healthy, and if people are willing to put in the time to sustain something like this, then it will work because it’s seen as helping to build communities and neighborhoods.”

Bert mentioned that the co-op offers a market for local farmers and producers, which makes sustainably-grown food available to customers at affordable prices.  For example, Charlotte Wolfe of Prairie Winds Farm, a local organic farm, is an existing partner of the Monroe Park Co-op.  Wolfe offered her expertise in starting up the co-op and currently supplies food to the co-op from her farm.  Likewise, Amish farmers in the area sell their products to the co-op at affordable prices, which enables the co-op to sell these items at low prices to customers.   Young farmers interested in partnering with their local communities to combat the problem of food deserts might very well be interested in cooperative models such as these pioneered by the Bowdon Community Cooperative and the Monroe Park Co-op.
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