Background image of Street view with cars and hills in the distance, shops on the sides

RuralStaples

Photo By Eugénie Frerichs

Grocery stores in the back of beyond reinvent themselves.

Sharon Thornberry, Community Food Systems Manager for the Oregon Food Bank, has become a vehement champion for the rural independent grocery store: an endangered species whose survival or disappearance, she believes, will forecast the long-term health of rural communities.

In the late 1970s, as a single mother of two, Thornberry experienced homelessness in remote rural Texas. On the other side of that experience, she dove headfirst into a twenty-five-plus-year career as a community organizer focused on the root causes of hunger, including poverty and disempowerment.

Thornberry sees promise in communities where rural groceries have proven their social worth.

In 2009, she began organizing daylong FEAST events that bring together around forty to sixty rural community leaders from the food and agriculture trades to take stock of their resources and explore how they can collaborate. At the events, Thornberry began to realize that rural grocery stores are vital to tapping the flow of goods and services that infrequently reach communities outside the mainline distribution thoroughfares. These stores function as critical infrastructure, both in the hard sense, including refrigerated storage space (although often in disrepair) and regularly delivered fresh food, and in the soft sense: their aisles are the common corridors where community members catch up with one another.

As the FEAST program traveled to new communities, however, Thornberry recognized that rural groceries in Oregon and across the country are slowly dying.

Data on the number of rural grocery closures is scarce, but nationally, consolidation within the grocery industry has meant that from 1993 to 2011, the share of sales by the twenty largest food retailers grew 23.8 percent — to 63.7 percent of all U.S. grocery store sales. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service specifically points to the rapid growth of Walmart Supercenters to explain the trend.

“The challenge is that the business model of serving a small population does not fit within the modern retail model of buying in bulk and marketing to the masses at the lowest price,” Thornberry says.

The story of a store losing its customer base to outsized competition has been playing on repeat for the past fifty years, with dire consequences for rural health. Among other things, obesity is markedly higher in rural areas, but the trend is offset in areas where a rural grocery still exists.

Over the past five years, at Thornberry’s instigation, the Oregon Food Bank has undertaken a survey of store owners around the state. She wanted to know: who is running today’s independent rural groceries, and how are they faring? While the project is ongoing, an interim report from May 2013 with responses from seventy store owners gave Thornberry a new sense of urgency for sharing the stories of success and innovation, creating new opportunities for collaboration within communities and among stores, and challenging policy makers to look at rural groceries in a new light. It lit a fire under her that continues to burn.

“We cannot simply write them off as a quaint reminder of a bygone era,” she demands.

While these stores can’t compete with Walmart or SuperValu, Thornberry sees promise in communities where rural groceries have proven their social worth by connecting to their local food producers, challenging traditional expectations, and inventing nimble operations. She points to examples within Oregon to spark new thinking about the many forms that innovation can take.

At the M. Crow & Co. Store in Lostine, community leaders opened up a public discourse about the greater value the store can serve and, in exchange, asked the community to commit to patronize the historic mercantile. Local champion June Colony stepped in to solicit and utilize government support to purchase the distribution infrastructure needed to connect local producers with the store. At the Maupin Market, on the sunny eastern side of Mt. Hood, the Bechtols are hatching collaborations with other rural groceries. And at the Langlois Market, the Pestana brothers are rethinking how food travels to their remote stretch of the southern Oregon Coast, creating new opportunities for local producers and sellers.

These stores are showing that they can become something more for their communities than what they’ve been in the recent past, while continuing to be a lifeline to fresh food. Although on the verge of extinction, this breed has a window of opportunity to adapt.

On a gray, misty late-September day, with the cranberry harvest in full swing in the bogs all around Langlois, two hours north of the California border on the Oregon coast, Lee Pestana is working behind the deli counter. “Homemade mustard and pickles?” he asks. An eager couple nods as he begins dressing up two of the store’s famous Gerry Frank hot dogs.

Lee is now an employee of the store that he ran for thirty-three years. In 2012, he sold it to his son Jacob. “I love it.” He laughs. “I get the best of both worlds! I sold it to my son and I still get to work here. If I sold it to anyone else, I’d have seller’s remorse.”

This grocery-cum-deli-cum-convenience store has gained an expansive sense of possibility, thanks to the used refrigerated truck that Jacob and his brother, Joe, purchased. The entrepreneurial Pestana brothers have started their own small-scale distribution company to bring bulk grocery products to the store and down the southern coast, making food more affordable for their community.

On Thursdays, the Maupin Market receives its once-a-week produce delivery. “It’s known as Banana Day,” says Randy Bechtol, who owns the market with his wife, Allison. “As soon as we unpack a box, no matter how green they are, they start flying out of here. But by the end of the week, we’re giving away pretty ripe bananas.”

Randy and Allison had a weekend house in Maupin, in north-central Oregon, while they held down high-level corporate jobs with health insurance firms in Portland. After Randy was laid off, Allison decided she was also ready for a change of scenery. They bought the market in 2009.

Suddenly, Allison and Randy are looking at the corporate world from the perspective of outsiders. “It’s the big guys that get the focus because they have more demand, but it seems to me that there are a lot of small, local grocery stores that aren’t recognized for the value that they bring,” says Allison. She is enthusiastic about exploring the idea of an alliance of small, independent rural grocers with the Food Bank. “I’d love to find a way to have smaller, rural stores work together to build strength.”

The town of Dayville feels uncannily like a Western movie set. At the confluence of the John Day and South Fork John Day Rivers, due east from Prineville in central Oregon, Dayville is nestled in a basin with dusty mountain ranges on all sides. One main street bisects a handful of historic, graying wood buildings. The town’s star attraction is a massive mercantile, set back from the road by a sprawling parking lot.

Built in 1896, the Dayville Mercantile was once home to a general store, gas station, post office, and dance hall.

“One-hundred-plus years ago, this store probably had everything anyone would need,” says Angela Moss, who owns the store with her parents. Everything was brought from The Dalles by covered wagon or freight wagon, “and that’s how the farmers and ranchers got their goods.”

Today, Dayville routinely faces the question: how does a grocery store survive when there are not enough people or food producers nearby to make it pencil out? How do the ranchers and park rangers, central to urban dwellers’ Oregon experience, also get fresh, healthy food? The answer still eludes Angela, who acknowledges the possible futility of running a grocery without any outside assistance in such an out-of-the-way place, but who feels powerfully at home in the desert. “The sense of community, the sense of feeling like you belong, or feeling like you’re home, doesn’t necessarily hinge on people,” she reflects. “For me, the emphasis is on the land.”

The unincorporated town of Pondosa sits halfway between Baker City and La Grande on a little-traveled road that parallels I-84. Once the home of a booming sawmill, the town is named for the way its workers pronounced ponderosa, the cinnamon-red pines that provided their sole commodity, timber.

Today, Pondosa is a shell of its former self. The town has a population of two: Bob and Jean Bennett, still youthful at 90 and 91 years old. For the passerby, Pondosa exists only because of the store, where you can buy the Bennett’s garden produce in season, various canned goods, and refrigerated candy bars.

For a lot of people, Lostine is a blip in the road on the way to the breathtaking Wallowa Mountains. It sits in the far northeast corner of the state, just shy of a mile above sea level in the rain shadow cast by the Cascades. It’s grazing country — the landscape is dominated by beef and sheep, grains and grasses. The most iconic elements of main street Lostine are a gothic, gray stone tavern and the two-story M. Crow & Co. General Store.

When the store was on the verge of closing four years ago, Oregon Food Bank’s Sharon Thornberry helped local business owner June Colony and other local community organizers rally Lostine and the surrounding areas around a commitment to patronizing the store. The owners for over one hundred years, the Crow family, promised to hang in until a buyer could be found. The Presbytery of Eastern Oregon, a regional body that unites sixteen Presbyterian churches, gave the Crows a grant for repairing their failing electrical coolers. Additionally, for two years, many volunteers made soups, breads, and desserts to sell on Fridays at the Crow Store, in what they called the “Soup Nook,” with monies raised supporting the store.

On July 7, 2013, an unlikely new owner stepped in: Tyler Hays, a successful furniture designer based in Philadelphia who had grown up near Wallowa Lake. “We would like to thank the generations of the Crow family that built and kept alive this treasure of Wallowa County heritage,” says Hays. “In their honor, we hope to stay open for another hundred years. Wherever you are, please support your local stores.”