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Commentary: Grocery stores vital to rural communities

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By John Crabtree

Grocery stores play a crucial role in our rural communities, providing vital sources of nutrition, jobs and tax revenue that support the community. Moreover, rural grocery stores are also economic drivers, community builders and meeting places.

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They are, however, slowly disappearing - forcing residents to leave their communities to purchase food, often at great expense and over great distance. Across rural America, 803 counties are classified as "food deserts" where all the county residents are at least 10 miles from a full-service grocery store. The Great Plains has the highest concentration of "food desert" counties, with 418.

The Center for Rural Affairs recently released two reports on rural grocery stores (see www.cfra.org). The first, Rural Grocery Stores: Importance and Challenges, describes six general challenges facing rural grocery stores: competition with chain stores, high energy costs, minimum buying requirements, labor issues, community support, and models of ownership. The second report, Rural Grocery Stores: Ownership Models That Work for Rural Communities, offers solutions to the challenges discussed in the first report and examines models of rural grocery store ownership.

Many believe the future of America's rural communities is much in doubt, that the stern demographic and economic challenges they face are simply too great and deep-seated to overcome. The issues facing rural grocery stores are an example of those larger rural challenges. But at the Center for Rural Affairs, we believe the future of our rural communities holds abundant promise if new economic models are encouraged and implemented.

John Crabtree is with the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyon, Neb.

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