BISMARCK — The future of North Dakota’s rural grocery store system was once again one of the main topics at Wednesday’s meeting of the North Dakota Commerce Committee.
Access to fresh food in Bismarck is relatively easy, but that is not the case for those who live across North Dakota’s rural communities. but now there’s new hope for those rural grocery stores that are in danger of closing.
“In some instances, it’s almost a dire situation,” said John Dyste, the President of the North Dakota Grocers Association.
North Dakota’s rural grocers are in trouble, in fact, according to the State Grocers Association, they’re losing stores at an alarming rate, meaning some consumers need to travel further and further to buy fresh meat and produce.
State Senator Shawn Vedaa knows this problem directly, as he’s run a store in Velva since 2003 and told KX News a major challenge is dealing with home delivery services.
“It’s hard to believe that someone can throw a box of Oreos, in a box, and ship it to me cheaper than what I can sell it right off my shelf,” said Vedaa.
Another major problem is dollar stores which offer plenty of grocery items, but almost no produce or meat.
Dyste told KX News this problem is not only impacting the smallest of North Dakota Communities.
“We have some decent size communities that have good grocery stores that are starting to struggle, the margins are getting less to operate on,” said Dyste.
But there may be a little light at the end of the tunnel. A test project ongoing in the Northeast part of the state is going well. It involves a new distribution hub that could get products to nearby stores with an average 14-percent price difference on wholesale food products.
Also going well is a proposed climate-controlled grocery locker system. The system would include lockers that hold, frozen and refrigerated products and customers would order online and the nearest store would deliver the items to the locker.
Though it may seem convenient, just tossing a bunch of dollar stores in small towns is not the solution.
“Those corporate decisions, that are made, once a town gets to the point to where it just isn’t viable for them to be there, they just pull up their shelving and they take off and they put it someplace else,” said Vedaa.
But the clock continues to tick and many rural stores are running out of time and money to continue to operate, putting the pressure on the state to act, before the state rural system hits its expiration date.
There is some more good news. Next week a mystery donor could be providing an extra $110,000 toward this pilot project. And if all goes well, the committee hopes to have a concrete plan in place by the 2021 Session.