Pandemic proves need for rural groceries

A clerk works behind a plastic divider as she waits on a customer at Tellmann’s Market in New Salem, N.D., which has seen a boost in business since the coronavirus pandemic led local people to travel less for groceries.

Allan Tellmann and his employees sanitize their New Salem, North Dakota, grocery store, Tellmann’s Market, many times a day. They stock products that are flying off the shelf at unusual rates and check people out from behind plastic sneeze guard barriers.

Tellmann’s Market opened in New Salem in 2016, after the previous local grocery store closed its doors in 2013, leaving the town more than 25 miles from other grocers in Glen Ullin and Bismarck-Mandan. Bucking the trend that has seen many small towns lose their only grocery store in recent years, Tellmann said he has seen a noticeable increase in traffic and new customers since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Some people that normally would have gone to the big city to shop probably were a little bit apprehensive,” Tellmann said. “It created a little tension, so they preferred to stay at home.”

Across the state, rural grocery stores have seen a significant growth in sales amid the pandemic. Some have seen sales increase by more than 100 percent in the past few months, said Lori Capouch, rural development director for the North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives. 

Capouch said she credits the increase to less travel and more people working from home, leading residents to shop locally for groceries.

“We’ve spent six years building up all of this data to try to prove that we needed access to rural food or to healthy foods in rural places and that it was important during a time of an emergency,” Capouch said. “Then we get this real-life fire drill of an emergency and it shows us how important it is for rural people (to) have access to healthy foods locally.”

Since 2013, the state has lost around 15 percent of grocery stores in towns of fewer than 2,500, according to a resolution from the North Dakota State Senate’s Interim Commerce Committee. None of the remaining stores have closed since the pandemic began, Capouch said.

For Tellmann, summer months usually see an increase in business, but the jump came several months earlier than expected this year because of the pandemic. With three employees choosing to sit out due to health concerns, Tellmann said he’s had to learn to work more efficiently. 

Despite the increase in sales at local grocers, the state has also seen an increase in need for programs such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) as many are facing layoffs due to the pandemic, said Karen Ehrens, a health and nutrition consultant and policy advocate.

Ehrens said in the past decade, food insecurity in the state has increased slowly, and in the last few months saw a spike. The Great Plains Food Bank, the largest hunger-relief organization in the state, saw a 44 percent increase in demand for food assistance from partner pantries and organizations. They also saw a 79 percent increase in demand for mobile food distribution.

This especially affects tribal communities, where poverty and rural locations create troubles in accessing food easily. Mary Greene Trottier, director of the Spirit Lake Nation Food Distribution Program, said fear of the pandemic and lack of transportation made it even more difficult for those living on the reservation to access grocery stores.

Greene Trottier said the food distribution program saw a large increase in demand during the first month of the pandemic, and has restricted access to the distribution facility.

“We have several c-stores, convenience stores, and then we also have a tribally operated grocery store … but if you don’t have a vehicle and you don’t have transportation, you don’t have access to food,” Green Trottier said.

Ehrens said once the virus subsides, some will be able to go back to bigger cities to shop for groceries, but the pandemic proves the need for rural grocers for those who aren’t able to travel for food access. She said local grocers need year-round support if they are to be available in times of crisis.

As people begin going back to work and restrictions from the pandemic loosen, Tellmann said he’s excited for residents to get back together and ease up on social distancing. But he said he hopes the community will continue seeing the importance of his small local store.

“It kind of proves that there’s a place of value to a small town grocery store,” Tellmann said. “Whether it’s a snow storm or a pandemic, people turn to what they have at home.”

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