Interim committee studying rural grocery stores | Prairie Public Broadcasting

Interim committee studying rural grocery stores

Aug 12, 2019

Lori Capouch of the North Dakota Rural Electric and Telecommunications Development Center testifies before the Legislature's Interim Commerce Committee.
Credit Dave Thompson / Prairie Public

An interim Legislative committee is studying the distribution and transportation of food in rural communities.

But it isn’t an easy issue to solve.

The study came from concerns about the loss of grocery stores in smaller cities.

“When we started this work in 2014, we documented 137 full-service stores in towns with 2100 people or less," said Lori Capouch, the rural development director for the North Dakota Rural Electric and Telecommunications Development Center. "As of today, there are 98 stores remaining."

Capouch told the interim Commerce Committee some of those stores are operated by the communities themselves, or are staffed by volunteer help.

"Rural people work hard to keep their grocery store," Capouch said. "They understand they need it. It’s a pillar in their community.  They feel it’s a kiss of death for their community to lose it.”

Capouch said other states are facing the same issues. And she said studies have shown that people who don’t have access to fresh fruits, vegetables and meat are more likely to develop health problems.

But solutions to the problem aren’t easy.

“There isn’t a silver bullet," said 'Creating a Hunger-Free North Dakota' representative Karen Ehrens. "These issues are deep. From my perspective, it’s going to take the public sector, the private sector and the non-profit sector working together.”

Melissa Sobolik is the executive director of the Great Plains Food Bank. Her agency also administers the “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,” which used to be known as the food stamp program. She said only 60 percent of income-eligible North Dakotans sign up for “SNAP.”

“One reason they don’t participate, which we hear a lot from our rural residents, is that they don’t have anywhere locally to use their SNAP benefits," Sobolik told the Committee. "They don’t have a local grocery store.”  

Sobolik said last year, over $74 million in SNAP benefits was distributed to 53,000 North Dakotans.

“Having a local grocery store that accepts SNAP benefits not only improves the nutrition of our low income residents, it’s a guaranteed customer base for our rural grocers,” Sobolik said.

A lot of the committee’s discussion was about transportation issues – getting fresh food to rural grocery stores. And committee members wonder what role the state can play when it comes to solutions.