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Strengthen ND celebrates the establishment of the Strong Farm Incubator near Baldwin during a ribbon-cutting ceremony in May 2023
Strengthen ND celebrates the establishment of the Strong Farm Incubator near Baldwin during a ribbon-cutting ceremony in May 2023. (Photo courtesy of Indak Media)

Investments in rural food sustainability are investments in state’s future

Small-town pilot program would be first of its kind for North Dakota grocery stores

North Dakota’s rural communities have lost over 20% of their grocery stores in the last decade. The loss of a local grocery store is a significant blow to small towns seeking to navigate existing workforce and economic challenges, and maintain the health and wellbeing of residents, while also investing in these communities’ long-term viability.

With overwhelming and seemingly insurmountable challenges, residents and community leaders can feel hopeless. They can feel like, no matter what they do, their community is destined to erode or decline. Nothing will ever change.

“We’ve tried [insert project type here] before, and it didn’t work. It didn’t work then, and it won’t work this time.”

“That’s new or different. It won’t work. We’ve always done it this way.”

How many times have we all heard that or some version of it in a local meeting?

But there are glimmers of hope across the North Dakota prairie. Rural communities are pushing outside of their comfort zones and investing in new and innovative solutions to solve some of their most persistent problems.

Take for example, the community of Munich (population 190), nestled in the rich farmland of Cavalier County. Munich is like many rural and remote communities scattered across North Dakota. People there have experienced volatility of local farm economies, outmigration, school consolidations, loss of amenities, and most recently, challenges of maintaining their rural grocery store. But the community has always rallied and adapted, ensuring residents can make the most of what they have. 

Over the month of December, the Munich Area Development Corporation will lead the transition of the local, nonprofit grocery store to become the area’s first grocery store offering self-service.

This change will enable Munich’s store to remain open as a reliable food access point.

Running your own groceries past the scanners in a self-checkout line might be a familiar practice, but this is a little different. Self-service grocery stores aren’t necessarily staffed, and members have a key fob to the front door. Modeled after the Main Street Market in Evansville, Minnesota, this resourceful approach taken by Munich could truly pave the path toward the future of what grocery stores could look like in small towns in rural North Dakota where there isn’t typically a grocery store for miles. 

The self-service model is hypothesized to work because it won’t come with all of the typical overhead that a grocery store usually has, while also allowing for expanded shopping hours for residents working non-typical schedules. The equipment and technical support needed to make Munich’s a self-service grocery store were funded through an AARP Community Challenge Grant received in the summer of 2023.

The North Dakota Legislature has been hearing about communities like Munich struggling to maintain a local grocer for several legislative sessions, as organizations like the North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives worked diligently to inform and advocate for rural grocery stores. This hard work, along with the testimonies of many others, culminated in Senate Bill 2273, led by Sen. Janne Myrdal, R-Edinburg, which created a pilot program to provide grants for “the preservation of rural grocery stores and increasing the availability of food access in the state.” 

The North Dakota Department of Commerce launched the program — named the Rural Food Sustainability Grant — in September.

It’s already funded six communities to explore their own options for food sustainability, allowing for a wide array of approaches and potential outcomes.

The organization I lead, Strengthen ND, is proud to be a recipient of $20,000 from the program to complete a feasibility study for a local foods market truck housed at our newly launched Strong Farm Incubator just outside of Baldwin.

The $1 million investment from the legislature, while significant, only scratches the surface of the true need of communities across our state. And long-term, sustainable change will take time.

Yet, through this program, hope is being seeded across rural North Dakota. Hope that communities have the power, support and potential resources to begin overcoming their own hurdles.

It will take many efforts, big and small, over time to move the proverbial needle for North Dakota’s rural food ecosystem. It will take pursuing new and different approaches, like Munich’s self-service grocery pilot, to understand how a community can be sustainable and vibrant.

Today, consider how you are investing in your community’s future, in both big and small ways. We all have a role to play, whether we are community members, grocery store owners, local foods producers or elected officials. Rural communities are small, and we need everyone in our community to invest in our collective futures to be successful.

This article appeared first on North Dakota Monitor.