After grocers leave, some MN towns push for local co-opsby Elizabeth Baier, Minnesota Public Radio
Lanesboro, Minn. — Throughout Minnesota, access to fresh groceries is becoming a challenge for people in small towns, as local grocers close their doors.
No where is this more apparent than Lanesboro, a summer tourist destination for cyclists, anglers, and paddlers. Since the village grocery store closed two years ago, the town's 800 or so year-round residents have had to travel at least 10 miles to buy food.
That could change soon. Earlier this year, a group of residents raised $750,000 to buy the old grocery store with the help of local investors. Their goal: to attract another grocer to town.
For the co-op project to work, residents need at least 100 people to contribute $5,000 each. So far, 40 people have. If they don't raise the money by Oct. 31, residents who have contributed to the co-op will get their money back.
It's been a tough sell, said Rick Lamon, one of the residents behind the project. Even if someone invests $200,000 into the project, carrying the debt needed to finance the building likely would be an issue, he said.
Still, he thinks it's worth it.
"If we can have it paid for and the facility totally paid for and we get good management, decent pricing and good product, then I think we probably have a shot at it," Lamon said.
For years, the Village Foods was a lifeline here in the heart of Lanesboro. It was the place residents bought their weekly groceries, and visitors grabbed last-minute snacks before hitting the trails or heading to their campsite.
For Bridget Hust, it was also the place to reconnect with locals after being away for the winter.
From April to November, Hust, 77, lives in a country home nearby. With the grocery store closed, she's packed several coolers with food from her refrigerator in St. Paul, a couple boxes of wine, and some toilet paper.
Hust can't wait for a new store. When the market closed, residents had to run to nearby Preston or Fountain to shop.
"People started planning ahead and making sure they have three mustards," said Hust, who hasn't yet contributed financially.
Towns around Minnesota have struggled to keep their supermarkets on Main Street.
When the grocery store closed in Walnut Grove, members of the city's Hmong community took it upon themselves to reopen it. In Ortonville, the co-op on Main Street is completely run by volunteers. And in Mentor, farmers are working to create a year-round farmers' market to give residents access to fresh, local food.
Kathryn Draeger, state director of the regional sustainable development partnership at the University of Minnesota, said access to food in rural areas is more about convenience and price than the sustainability of small towns.
Residents may find it convenient to go to big box stores and large supermarkets where there is a larger selection of products, she said, but nothing beats a market in town.
"There's also something that's really satisfying about knowing that you're helping keep your local infrastructure intact," Draeger said. "You're helping keeping Main Street vital and working."
That's something Angie and Scott Taylor are familiar with. They own the 50s-themed Pedal Pushers Cafe in Lanesboro.
Angie Taylor said residents and visitors benefit from stores in town. During the summer, people stop by their cafe for butter or milk so often that it's become a little mini grocery store.
"It's tough not having that here where there's thousands of people that come through this town every weekend," she said.
The Taylors are among the residents who have already committed to the new grocery. The way they see it, it's an investment for their business and community.
- All Things Considered, 04/14/2011, 5:54 p.m.