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Solving food deserts in Iowa: When small towns lose grocery stores, where do residents turn?

Community gardens, mobile pantries try to fill gaps

May 3, 2019 at 8:00 am
    Jugs of milk are set out for the monthly mobile food pantry at Oelwein Community Plaza on Wednesday, March 13, 2019. 150 households were signed up to receive food at the monthly pantry, which is one of 13 served by the Northeast Iowa Food Bank. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

    When Lone Tree, an Eastern Iowa city of about 1,300, saw LT’s Fine Grocery close in October, it became another rural community across the country to lose its only grocery store.

    Not having a grocery store in town is more than simply a matter of inconvenience. Limited access to grocery stores and supermarkets can lead to diets with less healthy food, such as fruits and vegetables, the Iowa Department of Public Health has found. In addition, the department found, the greater the distance someone must travel for fresh, healthy foods, the more likely they are to have diet-related chronic diseases, such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis.

    Between 1976 and 2000, Iowa lost more than half of its grocery stores, the department reported. As a consequence, only about 63 percent of the census tracts in Iowa — specific areas used for taking the U.S. Census — have a “healthy food” retailer within a half-mile. That is 9 percent lower than the national average.

    Nationally, the Economic Research Service for the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that 19 million Americans live in areas with poor income and low access to food — that is, they live more than 1 mile from the nearest grocery store in urban areas or more than 10 miles from a grocery store in rural areas.

    Lone Tree Mayor Jon Green notes most of the Johnson County city’s residents have vehicles and travel the 15 miles to Iowa City for work, where they are able to get groceries. But there is concern for residents, such as senior citizens, who may be less mobile or living on a fixed income.

    “I know that this is a struggle and concern for all sorts of communities,” Green said. “But just because it is ubiquitous does not mean it is not frustrating. If it was an easy issue, it wouldn’t be a problem. But it is something that’s going to require a lot of folks’ attention and work.”

    A rural grocery store’s role

    About 13 years ago, Kansas State University recognized the problem caused by the loss of grocery stores in small communities. The university’s Center for Engagement and Community Development launched the Rural Grocery Initiative to help preserve grocery stores in towns of 2,000 population or less.

    Isabelle Busenitz, a program associate with the center, said staff began by surveying rural grocery stores about their challenges. In the process, they realized the stores are a critical piece to business development in the communities.

    On average, Busenitz said, a rural grocery store contributes $644,000 to the local economy each year, employs 17 people in a mix of full- and part-time positions and often offers much healthier food than the town’s convenience stores.

    ”The loss of a grocery store in a small town is more than just a loss of that business,” she said. “A grocery store can serve as an anchor in a downtown, and (its departure) can lead to lost desirability of locating new business and makes it harder to bring those back in.”

    Rural grocery stores today face a host of challenges, including finding an affordable model to provide fresh produce for a community.

    “Most grocery stores receive their product from a food distributor,” Busenitz said. “Depending on who the food distributor is, they may have buying minimums. Or if they don’t have a buying minimum, they may have a higher-priced structure if you have a smaller order.”

    The smallest grocery stores often have to sell locally grown produce when it’s available or buy it from discount retailers, with staffers picking it up and driving it back to the stores.

    To discuss these issues and how to support rural grocery stores, the center now hosts the Rural Grocery Summit every other year where information is provided on various aspects of the issue. Busenitz said the Rural Grocery Summit and Initiative has communicated with a number of Midwestern states with large rural populations, such as Iowa and Minnesota, about the issue.

    Filling the gap

    Once a grocery store is lost or is too expensive or too far away for low-income, rural residents, communities have to think creatively about how to provide fresh produce. For Lone Tree, while services such as Hy-Vee’s grocery delivery program can help, one answer for those on a fixed income and/or without transportation could be a new community garden that’s now being planned, Green said.

    Lone Tree city leaders want to put the garden in Railroad Park and have it provide fresh produce for the community dining program, which is served next door. Green hopes the garden can provide programming for seniors and some community building opportunities, too

    Mobile food pantries also provide help in rural areas. The Northeast Iowa Food Bank, for one, brings a mobile food pantry to 13 small communities, including Malcom, Tripoli and West Union.

    “Every community I think has an opportunity to learn from others but also kind of figure what’s going to work best,” said Doris Montgomery, state coordinator for the Iowa Nutrition Network.

    “Sometimes the challenge is, in the rural areas, people don’t want other people knowing about their situation,” she said. “I think we need to find ways to make accessible where people don’t have to feel like they’re saying, ‘Please help me.’ ”

    Tina Zubrod, 51, has been going to the food bank’s monthly mobile pantry in Oelwein for about three years. She picked up most of the food options at the stop, which included milk, bread, apples and other fresh produce in March.

    Zubrod spent much of last year in the hospital with leukemia. When she came home, volunteers delivered pantry food for a while. She’s still paying medical bills, which stretches her budget, and said she seldom goes to the Fareway in town.

    “I just use as much as I’ve got,” Zubrod said, noting her income is limited to mostly disability and supplemental social security.

    Kathleen Kuennen, 52, is in a similar situation, having recently found out her once-beaten lung cancer has come back and spread. She stops at the Oelwein pantry to help with her grocery bill, especially for the fresh produce, which can be expensive, she said.

    “We go to Waterloo (for cancer treatment) from here. It costs 20 bucks in gas, 25 bucks in gas every time round trip. You know, that cuts out of the grocery bill,” she said. “It all helps. You get two, three banana boxes full of food. I mean that really, really helps.”

    ‘More awesome’

    In Lenox, a city of about 1,400 in southwest Iowa, the owners of Ramsey’s Market have adopted a slogan they hope will keep their business afloat — be “more awesome” than other stores — even though they face the same challenges as other rural groceries, such as buying produce in bulk.

    Bonnie and Theo Ramsey bought the market in 2015 when it was Cheese’s Food Center, owned by a family that had been in the grocery business in Lenox for about 120 years, Theo Ramsey said. With the exception of a new Dollar General that offers some food, the market is the only grocery store in town.

    The market’s “awesome” philosophy includes being an entertainment center and looking for ways to help the people in town. Along with the traditional groceries, the Ramseys have a burrito shop in their market, and they’re opening an Ace Hardware — with a bar — in a 1920s-era gymnasium next door to the market.

    “It’s a challenge, you know,” Theo Ramsey said. “We’re small, and we end up probably throwing away a higher percentage of our produce than bigger stores do, but that’s just what we’ve got to do. We try to model everything after what can survive.

    “We are very concerned about what Lenox would be like without a grocery store.

    “It’s one of the first steps toward the town kind of withering away and dying. There’s no access to fresh foods. It’s impossible to attract new businesses. It’s very difficult to attract new people to move here.”

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