North Dakota officials to study decline in rural groceries

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

DRAKE, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota lawmakers are planning a legislative study to better understand how to ensure groceries are available in rural areas where shops have been closing.

State Sen. Jim Dotzenrod, a Wyndmere Democrat, sponsored a resolution calling for a study of the distribution and transportation of food in the state.

“It deserves some time and effort to explore the problem and see if there’s things the state may be able to help with,” Dotzenrod said.

The town of Drake is likely to lose its only grocery store beginning next year. Closure will mean customers will have to drive 30 miles to Harvey or Velva to buy groceries.

Diane Kolschefsky, owner and manager of D&M Grocery in Drake, said she plans to retire and that finding a buyer hasn’t been easy.

“It’s going to be a hardship, and it’s not going to help the existing businesses that are in town,” Kolschefsky said.

Dotzenrod said there may be ways to use state excess storage to create distribution centers for small groceries and benefit food deserts, the Minot Daily News reported.

State Sen. Shawn Vedaa, a Velva Republican, is on the interim Commerce Committee that’s leading the study. He has owned Velva Fresh Foods for 16 years and is a member of the North Dakota Grocers Association board.

“I have watched so many of these small-town stores close,” he said. “I can just see it progressively getting harder and harder to be a small-town grocery.”

Lori Capouch, rural development director for the North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives, has been tracking the grocery issue. She said the number of full-service stores has declined from 137 to 98 in the last five years.

Vedaa said he’d like to see the state help develop a distribution center to serve small-town groceries, addressing some of the issues related to access to supplies and the distribution fees charged by wholesalers.

Kolschefsky, who has been in the business nearly 20 years, said limited support is the biggest issue facing the Drake grocery.

“That hurts a lot,” she said. “Younger people just don’t shop in town.”

The loss of a grocery store is often the first sign of an ongoing decline that leads to difficulty sustaining other quality-of-life services, from health care to social services, Dotzenrod noted.

“In a way, this discussion about grocery stores is also more of a discussion about these other things,” he said.