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It is an understatement to say that rural grocery stores play a critical role in supporting the health and vitality of the small towns they serve. However, access can be challenging in rural areas – the average grocery store is located 10 miles away, compared to only 1 mile in urban areas.

Having a local grocery store is more than a convenience. Access to fresh and healthy foods supports overall health and reduces the chance of developing chronic diseases. Rural grocery stores are especially important to senior citizens when transportation options may be limited or long-distance travel is undesired. Local grocery stores in small towns also serve as an anchor for business growth and community vitality.

Following the cooperative principle of “Concern for Community,” Iowa rural utilities have supported hometown grocery stores across the state. The following are a few inspiring examples of how rural communities have rallied to keep their grocery stores a vital part of their towns and region.

Ramsey’s Market expanding grocery services in multiple communities

In 2015, Bonnie and Theo Ramsey purchased an existing grocery store with a 120-year history in Lenox. With the slogan “Be more awesome” guiding the way, the Ramseys have significantly impacted west central and southwest Iowa.

Bonnie grew up on a family farm in Taylor County. She enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, where she also performed as a vocalist and met her husband Theo, a musician from Seattle. Through their travels, they developed a unique appreciation for grocery stores. When the Cheese’s Food Center in Lenox (near Bonnie’s hometown) became available, the couple jumped at the opportunity to return home and begin their retail adventure.

While the Ramseys studied retail marketing and grocery store business, the unique element of their store is entertainment. Shoppers are often greeted by live music from the stage inside the front door and may even hear the staff singing songs from behind the deli counter. After four successful years of operation, they purchased the adjacent building and opened Ramsey’s Ace Hardware to fill another community need. They boast this is the first Ace Hardware in the U.S. with a bar where shoppers can enjoy a beer and pick up do-it-yourself project necessities.

In 2020, the community of Manning was searching for options to reopen the recently closed West Street Market. Leaders from several organizations, including the Iowa Area Development Group (IADG), brainstormed options and a match came with the Ramseys. In May 2020, Ramsey’s Market opened in Manning.

Understanding the need in rural Iowa, the Ramseys have also introduced Fresh Out of the Box delivery services, which allow customers in rural communities to order groceries online, then pick up their orders from refrigerated and frozen lockers in Walnut and Shelby. They also offer curbside pickup and delivery in and around Lenox and Manning.

Iowan returns to lead reopening of Gowrie grocery store

Gowrie has an amazing story to tell. With the pending close of Jamboree Foods, citizens and businesses united to raise $250,000 in 10 days to save their local grocery store. Volunteers worked to transform the space into a small independent grocery store that focuses on fresh food. In April 2020, Market on Market opened for business.

Larry Roper, former Iowan and 25-year veteran grocery and produce manager for grocery and convenience stores, was excited to return to the state and lend his expertise to lead Market on Market to success. Central Iowa Power Cooperative and Gowrie Municipal Utilities each donated $10,000 to support this effort.

Greene grocery store reopens with expanded meat and poultry options

John and Sue Ebensberger raise beef on a family hobby farm in Greene. The hobby soon became a business, and the couple began selling individual cuts and custom wholesale options in Greene and Des Moines.

In 2019, the Ebensbergers purchased T&M Grocery in Greene and renamed it West Forty Market. In addition to the standard grocery store offerings, they immediately added their locally raised beef, pork and chicken. Butler County Rural Electric Cooperative and Corn Belt Power Cooperative both provided $169,250 in low-interest loans from their revolving loan funds to assist with purchasing the grocery store in Greene. 

In 2021, West Forty Market opened in Ankeny and features more than 120 cuts of beef, pork, chicken, bison, lamb and turkey, all raised on local Iowa farms and butchered in Iowa.

Efficiency upgrades supported through cooperative-sponsored IADG Energy Bank

IADG is the economic development organization sponsored by and working on behalf of Iowa’s rural electric cooperatives and rural utilities. It operates the IADG Energy Bank, a revolving loan fund that focuses on loans to businesses and industries within Iowa for qualifying energy efficiency projects.

The Energy Bank has assisted local grocery stores through low-interest loans to support energy efficiency and cost-saving upgrades. Prairie Market, a family-owned grocery store in Paullina, replaced its refrigeration cases and compressor system. The equipment in the store was 45 years old and in frequent need of repair. Upgrading the refrigeration cases resulted in considerable energy efficiency and cost savings, as well as a significant reduction in food spoilage.

Ramsey’s Market in Lenox is upgrading its outdated refrigeration and freezer cases with new energy-efficient units, resulting in less food spoilage as well as energy and cost savings. In addition, the current fluorescent lightbulbs will be replaced with LEDs to provide a pleasing shopping experience and generate further efficiency and savings.

The challenge for rural grocery stores will continue. But with challenge comes the incredible opportunity for individuals and communities to band together to create solutions to move forward. Your Iowa electric cooperatives actively support local initiatives through participation, financial support, and providing safe, affordable and reliable power.

Kay Snyder is the director of marketing and communications for the Iowa Area Development Group.

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