Bella’s Market and the Rural American Food Desert

You may have heard the big news that Bella’s Market, a chain of eight small grocery stores on the Eastern Prairie of Colorado has closed three of its stores.  This story, first of the empty store shelves and now of the closings, has made all the Denver news outlets.  I am going to weigh in on this, well, because I have all of those Jersey girl opinions.

The closest Bella’s Market to me is the one in Limon, Colorado.  I remember distinctly the last time I was there- it was well over a year ago.  The store shelves were empty then.  The product was front-faced (retail-speak for pulled forward) and spread out to make the store look full.  And that was then.  I hear it has only gotten worse.

In the town of Hugo, Colorado, just 13 miles down the road from Limon, there is an independent supermarket called Osborne’s Supermarket.  Osborne’s is a generational family business.  That family has rural supermarket management in their blood. They do an excellent job.  They are the third generation.  Osborne’s is what it is- it is a small supermarket in a small town.  They’ll never be Wegman’s.  But they carry A LOT of stuff considering that, and even run some decent sales sometimes.  Their prices are not competitive with Sam’s Club, but perhaps nearly the same prices as a “fancy” supermarket chain, maybe like Safeway.  I would like to support their business more than I do, but honestly, their prices are almost double the price of Sam’s.  I am grateful that they are there for me.  I am grateful for the service they provide to this community.  I am grateful that when I do need something in a pinch, they are there for me, and there for me with smiles and great customer service, too.

osbornesaisle

The aisles of Osborne’s Supermarket are always clean and bright and fully stocked.

The Colorado communities of Akron, Gypsum, Haxton, Limon, Stratton, Walden, Wellington, and Wiggins are not as lucky as the folks in Hugo.  These are the 8 communities served by Bella’s Market.  And now Akron, Wiggins and Walden have absolutely no supermarket since Bella’s closed.  They are all small little towns in small little rural farming communities.

I don’t pretend to know what goes into managing a supermarket in a rural community.  I do know that the fine people from Osborne’s have it down to a science and the owner of Bella’s has failed.  Before becoming a wife and mother, I worked all of my adult life in retail management, so I know far more about running a store than your average Joe.  If I had the funds or desire, I still would not know how to operate a supermarket in one of these rural towns.  I’m sure that there are nuances beyond nuances about it.

A food desert is a geographic area where affordable and nutritious food is difficult to obtain.  These communities in Eastern Colorado are textbook definitions of food deserts, yet they are surrounded by farms.

Bella’s Market was so bad that if any halfway decent grocer had come to any of those towns, the new grocer would have the majority of the community’s food dollar.  But no new grocer has come.

Years ago, before kids and Colorado, I sat in on a meeting of my employer’s real estate department.  The company was expanding. They were considering opening additional stores in certain locations.  They had tables, tables of the population amounts within certain radii of the proposed location.  The population data, which had come from the census bureau, was the principle deciding factor of where they would put additional locations.  If other companies use similar criteria, than of course no chain supermarket will ever move to these areas.

I predict that the other five Bella’s Market locations will close shortly.  They may never be replaced.  No other grocer has moved into these towns yet and Bella’s has been failing for years. And years.

The food desert keeps the poor poorer.  I can live fine without Bella’s Market, but others aren’t so lucky.  I’m going to explain why the Bella’s Market chain closing is bad news for the poor of Eastern Colorado in particular.
The poor do not have access to the grocery delivery alternatives.  Grocery Express is a company that delivers groceries from Sam’s Club, Wal-mart and King Soopers to some of these Eastern Colorado areas.  Many groceries are available from Amazon and even Wal-mart will now deliver non-perishable groceries free (with a minimum $50 purchase).  Online places don’t take food stamps or WIC checks.  That eliminates the poor’s valuable access to these needed groceries.    The poor are also less likely to be able to order online because many have no credit cards to use to order online.  Not all companies take prepaid cards online.  And even if a company did, the card fees add another expense. (Updated 8/14/14 to reflect that Grocery Express does take food stamp cards.)
The poor may not have a suitable vehicle or any vehicle at all.  There is a difference between having a car that could drive 100 miles each way to the Wal-mart Supercenter and one that you can just take around town.  The poor are the ones who may not be able to afford road trip worthy vehicles.
Even if the poor have a suitable vehicle, do they have the gas money? Even traveling the 13 miles from Limon to Hugo, can they afford that gas, each way?
Living paycheck to paycheck makes stocking up difficult. How can the poor afford to stock up on certain groceries when it’s just not in the budget?  They have to shop more often.  This means more grocery road trips than those who can afford to buy a month or two of groceries at once.
Being stuck in that small little town means having to shop other places. In Limon, for example, besides Bella’s Market, there are a few stores which carry a handful of groceries: ALCO, Dollar General, Loaf’N’Jug and the truck stops.  Besides the latter two being very expensive, none of these places offer very healthy food.  Processed garbage is the only type of groceries that the poor will have access to.

Eastern Colorado is pretty much all farms.  Lincoln County, for example, is bigger than the state of Delaware.  We have about 5000 non-inmate people living in the whole county.  There are a few little towns: Arriba, Genoa, Hugo, Karval and Limon.  About half of the population of Lincoln County is concentrated in the maybe six combined square miles of towns.  The other around 2500 people are spread out, spread out over the farmland.  We have a lot of farms.  A lot of farms which are several-square-miles-big.  How can we be food desert when we are surrounded by farms?  How come I can’t sell meat or wheat to my neighbor?  Why don’t we have orchards or vegetables grown locally?  I know water is scarce, but maybe we can use roof runoff or something.  We shouldn’t be looking for salvation by a supermarket.  We should be able to take care of ourselves as a farming community.  We don’t.  This is so ironic. And sad.  We farmers are no better than the owners of Bella’s Market.  We’ve failed, too.

So what is the solution?  I think we have to look two models and learn from them both: Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and Osborne’s Supermarket.

You may remember that I have written about Lancaster County, Pennsylvania before.  Located in central Pennsylvania, Lancaster County is abound with farmers markets, stores and roadside stands that feature produce, yummy cheeses, jams, pies and such other unique fare. I bet they could get by just about fine without a supermarket, or close to fine at least.  We farmers should imitate them.  This will take generations.

I mentioned Osborne’s Supermarket above.  Osborne’s is the small grocery store in the small town of Hugo.  For a little supermarket, they have a wonderful selection.  They have decent sales and OK prices.  They provide jobs to many town residents.  They can order a lot of items that they don’t stock on the shelf.  Osborne’s has wonderful customer service.  Their store is clean and bright.  They participate in community activities.  Their business seems to always be busy.  They seem proof that successfully running a supermarket in a rural community can be done.  The communities that Bella’s Market served (except Limon) are far enough away from Osborne’s to not be a competitor.  Any potential grocer who is considering serving some of the communities should look to Osborne’s Supermarket as a model.

(I put a chick over my children's names.) My children's artwork hangs on the ceiling of Osborne's Supermarket.

(I put a chick over my children’s names.)
This is a ceiling tile.  My children’s artwork hangs on the ceiling of Osborne’s Supermarket.

I honestly don’t know what the ultimate solution is.  I don’t have the desire (or funds or gumption or skill set) to open up my own supermarket in one of those towns.  If it was an easy proposition, someone would have done it already.  Bella’s Market has failed the communities.  But whose job is it to serve those communities with groceries?


Posted in The Irony of a Food Desert Surrounded by Farms by with 8 comments.

Comments

  • This is critically misunderstood. Not only are there the legal challenges of selling to neighbors but the shrinking amount of diversity in produce in rural areas. I’m definitely going to share this.

  • b says:

    we can teach our neighbors the skills we know of how to grow our own food so that there is less if not very little need for grocery stores. We also need to advocate politically to make sure our rights to raise our own food as well as trade it amongst each other are maintained.

  • What about something like the Saturday markets of yesteryear – farmers markets or CSA’s from the farm, maybe a co-op of course, finding someone to organize or coordinate can be difficult. Even though we live in the suburbs we split bulk orders from out of state because it’s cheaper and organic (from Azure Standard).

    • Laura says:

      Thank you for stopping by, Susan.
      They have a Bountiful Basket stop in both Limon and Hugo. At first, it was only in Limon. I tried it. It was 24 miles each way. I was 8.5 months pregnant with my fourth child. I had my other three under three with me. My husband does not have 9-5 hours at his job. He was working at the time of the Bountiful Basket stop. I did it just that one week. It just did not work for me. Bountiful Baskets is a great organization if one can put in the volunteering time, too, but I just wasn’t able to do it.
      A few years ago, I called the Azure Standard people. “We have stops all over Colorado,” the man said. “Having a stop in your area shouldn’t be a problem… Your zip code is blah-blah? Oh, the closest our truck passes to you is 80 miles away. I guess we can’t add a stop there.”
      A enterprising eccentric man maybe three years ago bought an empty building in Limon and a bunch of yellow paint and ostrich signs. He tried to make it a Farmer’s Market there, using the bright ostriches to attract people. He never had business there and sold the building shortly thereafter.
      There are no CSA’s that come this way, although I’d like to start my own greenhouse CSA one day, maybe when my kids are older. The local farms here grow grains: GMO corn, millet, wheat, milo/sorghum and that’s about it. Those aren’t really CSA crops.
      I’m not sure what you buy from Azure Standard, but last I knew wheat is cheaper if you buy it from my link over on the right side.
      A new grocer has bought Bella’s Market. Hopefully it will get better.

  • Excellent post, with much to consider. Came to you from dyno-mom’s link. I live in a big urban area, so our food access problems are a bit different, but I’ve often idealized rural farming life, and your post brings a bit of reality to my fantasy.

    One caveat about the Lancaster County folk: the Amish tend to have large families, so they can spread the work around. Some can stay to do the farming, some go to run the farmstands, sell the produce, etc. It is hard, I think, to run an active and large farm without a lot of hands (which is why, historically, farm families were large).

    • Laura says:

      Thanks for stopping by! I, too, idealized rural farming life. I think its natural. One of my main themes here is to offer considerations to those who may be contemplating making the jump from an urban or suburban life to a little patch of heaven way out west like I did.

      Yes, the Amish are amazing. Their whole culture outlook and community are so different from us English (their word for non-Amish). We have a lot of hands here, as I am electing my sixth, but at this point, they seem to work against us since they’re so young.

      Thanks again for stopping by!

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