How Do You Buy Groceries When There’s No Grocery Store? These Communities Figured It Out.

This story was originally published by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

When a new mobile grocery market launched in Wayne County, Pennsylvania, its first stop was Maple City Apartments, a 40-unit complex for low-income, elderly relatives. Maple City’s residents have felt the region’s lack of grocery stores acutely. The nearest full-service grocery store is at least five miles away, which leaves few options for people who don’t have access to a car or good public transit. But the County’s residents can now buy groceries from a farmers market on wheels.

It started when the Cooperage Project, a regional nonprofit organization, wanted to get fresh, healthy food to people during the pandemic, rather than having them settle for the shelf-stable, highly processed options that chain dollar stores offer. Cooperage created Mobile Farm Market — a small, refrigerated van — to bring fresh produce, milk, cheese, and eggs to towns and neighborhoods lacking full-service grocery stores. The Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative (a public-private financing program) and a private foundation provided grants to help support the initiative’s launch.

Wayne County is hardly alone in having so many food deserts. Consolidation within the grocery industry has reduced the number of grocery stores in the US by one-third over the past 25 years and big- and small-box discount stores have gobbled up market share from both chain and independent grocers. As a result, over 33 million Americans — one out of every ten people – now lack adequate access to fresh, healthy food. Too many communities end up settling for a chain dollar store — but that’s one of the worst options.

Fortunately, there are good alternatives when a grocery store is out of reach, and a growing number of elected officials, non-profit organizations, food activists, and concerned citizens are investing in these solutions. From mobile markets to refrigerated food pick-up lockers, communities are exploring innovative new approaches to making sure their residents have convenient, affordable access to healthy food – and they do so in a way that keeps dollars in the community. That is vital for towns and cities that hope to attract or develop a full-service grocery store in the future.

Mobile Grocery Stores

In addition to the one in Wayne County, mobile grocery stores operate in cities like Minneapolis–St. Paul, Washington, and Santa Fe, and in rural areas from Ohio to South Dakota. Some use retrofitted school buses; some use vans; a few even use RVs. They are almost always less expensive to launch than a storefront location, and their mobility means that they can reach people who don’t have access to a car. Most mobile grocery stores accept SNAP/EBT cards, and customers can track the stores’ location online.

Self-Service Grocery Stores

The only grocery store in tiny Evansville, Minnesota closed in the mid-2010s, and the closest full-service grocery store was 20 miles away. So, a local couple, Alex and Caileen Ostenson, with the help of community residents who chipped in to cover the cost of renovations, opened a different kind of grocery store. Main Street Market is staffed three days each week. On the days that it’s closed, members can use a phone app to open the door, scan the things they want to buy, and pay (membership is $75/year). Customers can leave suggestions for new items on a chalkboard inside. Each customer has a unique code, so the Ostensons know who’s in the store at all times. And although the store has security cameras, shoplifting hasn’t been a problem.

The concept is catching on not only in rural areas but also in large cities like Denver and San Diego where self-service grocery stores are popping up inside apartment and condominium buildings. It’s also becoming popular abroad. Sweden’s Lifvs self-service markets serve rural communities, for example, and Canada’s Aisle 24 has cashierless stores inside apartment buildings as well as in storefronts.

Refrigerated Grocery Delivery Lockers

An Iowa grocer is helping the residents of nearby towns that have lost their grocery stores. Theo Ramsey, who has two Ramsey’s Market stores, one in Lenox and one in Manning, set up a bank of refrigerated grocery delivery lockers in each town. Customers order groceries online, and Manning delivers the completed orders to a locker by 5 pm the following day. Customers then enter a code on the locker to unlock it and retrieve their groceries.

Refrigerated food delivery lockers are gaining traction in both rural and urban areas. For example, Walsh County, North Dakota’s Rural Access Distribution Cooperative (RAD), a groundbreaking program that groups rural grocery stores together to boost their wholesale buying power and trim distribution costs, offers food lockers to residents of two small towns, Fordville and Park River. And New Jersey’s Economic Development Authority launched a grant program, FRIDG (Food Retail Innovation Delivery Grant), in 2023 to help grocery stores buy refrigerated lockers to fulfill grocery orders from people living in food deserts. The lockers are located in public spaces, like community centers and libraries.

Small-Format Stores

The last full-service grocery store in Memphis’s predominantly Black Raleigh neighborhood closed years ago, leaving residents with no options other than leaving the neighborhood to shop or settling for pre-packaged food at one of the half dozen nearby chain dollar stores. But in 2023 a nonprofit organization, For the Kingdom, opened Exodus Marketplace, a “micro-market” of 1,800 square feet located in four shipping containers. Most of the food it sells is grown by local family farms. The store is open to everyone, but members get 10-15 percent discounts if they shop there more than once a month (membership costs a modest $45/year). The building also includes a juice bar, a small tech lab, and meeting space. The project’s launch was supported by the City of Memphis, a nearby hospital, and several major private donors. Small-format grocery stores are also popping up in rural areas throughout the Midwest, where Fareway, a family-owned regional chain, is opening 8,000 square foot stores, about one-third the size of its other stores, to serve small towns.

These are just a few ways in which communities are ensuring that their residents have access to healthy food — without settling for the paltry fresh food options that chain dollar stores provide. There are other successful solutions as well. Sometimes, these are interim fixes until the community can develop or attract a full-service grocery store. Sometimes, they can be a springboard to additional food services. Sometimes they are driven by the private sector, sometimes by the public sector, and sometimes by both, working together. But no community should feel pressured to settle for a dollar store for its food, particularly with the very real risk that that the presence of a dollar store might put a full-service grocery store out of business or prevent a new one from opening in the future.

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