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Access to fresh groceries could become an even bigger problem for rural Minnesotans

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Many rural grocery store owners plan to get out of the business in the next decade – and they don't have a transition plan to make sure the store will stay open afterward.

That's bad news for many people in greater Minnesota, who already have limited access to healthy and affordable foods, a University of Minnesota Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships survey released last week says.

“Grocery stores are the primary source of healthy food,” Karen Lanthier, co-author of the report, said in the release. “When they close, consumers face serious access challenges, and in some cases rely on less-healthy food as part of their diet.”

Last summer, the partnership surveyed grocery store owners in Minnesota communities with fewer than 2,500 people (there are 254 stores). Of the 175 owners who responded, 62 percent said they only intend to own their store for 10 more years – or less.

"I'm concerned that we will see a continuation and worsening of our loss of small town grocery stores,” Kathryn Draeger, who co-authored the report, said.

She also noted many grocery stores are in aging buildings that require a lot of upkeep and the owners are seeing thin profit margins, which are among the challenges stores face.

Rural grocery stores have also been struggling to stay competitive with big box and discount stores in recent years, forcing many to go out of business. Between 2000 and 2013, greater Minnesota lost 14 percent of its grocery stores, the Center for Rural Policy and Development reported.

Access to fresh produce could get worse

If more stores close, people will have to travel even farther to get fresh produce. Already, 28 percent of grocery store owners surveyed said they have customers who travel 30-plus miles to get to the store.

Those most affected by the food deserts are people with limited transportation options, including seniors and low-income residents, David Fluegel, executive director of the Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships, told the West Central Tribune.

The problem is not limited to individuals – grocery stores also supply fresh foods to restaurants, schools, daycare businesses, nursing homes. food shelves and hospitals, the survey says.

The partnership is among the groups looking to help prevent food deserts in greater Minnesota, and will use results from the survey in future outreach efforts, as well as inform the Minnesota Good Food Access Fund coalition – a group that works to confront problems in rural and urban areas where people have limited access to healthy and affordable foods.

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