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The Food Deserts of Rural America

When a town doesn’t have a grocery store, it means people don’t have access to food. But grocery stores also play an essential social and economic role in rural places. Community stores are trying to fill in the void.
November 13, 2019, 1pm PST | Camille Fink
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Matthew Rutledge

Jack Healy writes about the growing problem of food deserts in small towns across the country as grocery stores shut down and dollar stores proliferate. "The loss of grocery stores can feel like a cruel joke when you live surrounded by farmland. About 5 million people in rural areas have to travel 10 miles or more to buy groceries, according to the Department of Agriculture."

Some communities are responding by starting up what are referred to as "community stores," essentially co-ops that are stocked with staples but also sell locally produced products. A few states offer financial assistance, such as tax credits and loans, for small-town markets in food deserts. "But mostly, the people setting up crowd-funding sites to buy vegetable coolers and negotiating wholesale rates with huge grocery chains say they are stumbling around with little assistance and no map," says Healy.

In additional to the financial challenges, organizers say getting these operations off the ground is not easy. For one, they have to convince residents to stop shopping at Walmart and dollar stores, and they have to find wholesalers who will provide them the stock they need. But, they say, grocery stores are key to keeping these towns alive. "Their exodus has left rural towns worried about how they can hold on to families, businesses and their future if there is nowhere to buy even a banana," notes Healy.

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Published on Tuesday, November 5, 2019 in The New York Times
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