Rural food deserts: Why small-town grocery stores are closing and the impact that's left behind
Conneautville, Pa. is a pretty small town. According to U.S. Census projections, the town is home to just 750 people in western Crawford County. Once you pass the rolling fields and farm land, you'll find its quaint downtown. But what you won't find is a grocery store.
“Cheese, lunch meat and bananas,” said Sue Wheeler, of Conneautville, reading off of her grocery list as she heads out the door.
All of these things are what Wheeler used to buy at the nearby Samuel’s Market, until the grocery store closed in February. It was the only one in town that sold fresh produce and meat.The store closed just days before the Conneaut Valley Health Center burned down on Feb. 27.
“People are afraid that the town is just going to die,” said Wheeler, 69.
And just like that, Conneautville became the latest example of what's called a rural food desert, what the United States Department of Agriculture defines as an area where at least one-third of the population is without access to fresh foods for at least 10 miles.
It's a growing issue that's sort of hidden in plain sight. By some accounts, 98 percent of all food deserts reside in non-metropolitan areas, according to a Pew Trusts report. In all, the group continues, 803 U.S. counties are considered low food-access areas; 418 are considered food deserts. A 2013 report by The Food Trust found nearly 30 million Americans reside in them.
According to a USDA Food Desert map, there are dozens of both urban and rural food deserts in Northwestern Pennsylvania, and it appears that number is growing. No matter which way you go in Conneautville, it's just about 10 to 12 miles to the nearest store.
“You have all of these elderly people here in town,” Wheeler said. “They're not wanting to drive all the way to Meadville, Albion or Linesville.”
“These so-called food deserts can be an important social issue,” said Ken Louie, Ph. D., director of the Economic Research Institute of Erie at Penn State Behrend.
Louie cites several reasons why these stores are disappearing: increased grocery competition from the big-box retailers; online shopping; and in response to that, some stores are now offering curbside, and even home delivery. All of that, he said, is impacting low-access and low-income areas.
“Poorer households do not have the time to be able to shop and prepare using these healthier, fresher ingredients,” Louie said.
But it looks like the worst is yet to come. Just days after Samuel’s closed in Conneautville, New York-based Tops Market announced they would be filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Just last week, the grocery chain received approval from a federal judge to close some of its stores. Tops owns about a dozen locations in Northwestern Pa., as well. Elizabeth Moon shops at the Union City location several times a week.
“The convenience is worth it,” Moon said. “So if I have to pay a few dollars more than driving to Corry for Walmart, it evens out.”
Tops is the only grocery store in Union City, as well. Like Conneautville, the town is caught in the middle. Closing that location would send shoppers to the Tops in Waterford, which is nearly 10 miles away; or to stores in Corry -- roughly 12 miles away.
Either way, it's a reality that Moon doesn't want to face.
“Unfortunately, there are a lot of folks in this town who are struggling,” Moon said of Union City, where the poverty rate is nearly 20 percent. “A lot of people don't even have a vehicle. So, if the grocery store goes away, how are they going to get food?”
But in an evolving economy where grocery stores are closing, and even the established chains are locking up for the last time, one retailer in particular is moving in and expanding rapidly: Dollar General. The discount chain now has 14,609 stores, according to its website. The company plans to build another 900 in 2018, while renovating or updating more than 1,000 others, according to Dollar General Spokeswoman Crystal Ghassemi. Many of the stores have been built since the Great Recession a decade ago.
“We know convenience is a major factor in our customers' shopping decisions as we generally serve customers within a three to five mile radius, or 10 minute drive,” Ghassemi said in an email statement. “We also take demographic trends, competitive factors, traffic patterns and community concerns into consideration.”
“Because of the relatively lower per capita income levels, you tend to see more discount chains come to this area,” Louie said.
But what Dollar General doesn't have is what those local stores did: the fresh produce and meat. They have just about everything else, making not only convenience a factor, but also lower costs.
“I know I said that the price difference isn't that big of a deal, but if I do need laundry detergent, I'm going up to the dollar store,” Moon said referring to Dollar General.
The good news: Dollar General plans to sell produce at more of its stores across the country and in Pennsylvania in 2018. Right now, those plans do not include locations in the Erie area.
The former Samuel's Market location in Conneautville could be revived as soon as this year, noted Wheeler who has received calls from potential owners as the borough's tax collector.
So what is the future of the small town grocery store? Could these discount giants be the solution to the problem? Or, as more higher-end grocery chains close, are they merely a mirage in the world of rural food deserts?
"You've got at least ten miles that you have to go," Wheeler said. "And most people in town are low-income, retired, elderly."
"Their involvement with the different organizations, they always donate, they always help out," Moon said about Tops, who contributes food vouchers to the Union City Salvation Army. "So we would definitely miss that. It would be devastating."