PINE ISLAND — When it comes to feeding her family of five, Stephanie Pocklington leans heavily on Island Market in Pine Island.
"Cereals, pizzas, beverages, snacks," Pocklington said. "Generally things we'll cook for dinner, like pastas and sauces" are purchased at the lone full-service grocer in the town of roughly 3,400 people.
Not that Island Market is her only stop. Fruits, vegetables and meats often come from Hy-Vee in Rochester. While the Sam's Club in Rochester is where she'll buy bulk items such as toilet paper, paper towels or dog food. She buys her milk at Kwik Trip and toiletries and over-the-counter medicines at Dollar General.
A home-cooked dinner of spaghetti with a meat sauce and a side salad is a dinner staple that is eaten in homes across Southeast Minnesota — across the country — every night.
In 2018, Byron's lone grocery store, Byron Marketplace, was sold to Kwik Trip and downsized from a full-service grocery store — complete with gas station — to a convenience store and liquor store.
In short, Pocklington said, she's got options.
Still, she admits, if her family needed to rely only on the stores in Pine Island, "You are definitely limited."
Grocery limitations are a common problem for shoppers in small towns. Cities ranging in size from Dover to Wanamingo to Lewiston to Byron do not have full-service grocery stores. And convenience stores like Kwik Trip or limited-service grocery options such as Dollar General only fill part of the need.
If Mazeppa's 842 residents need groceries to put dinner on the table, it's a minimum of an 8-mile drive to Nilssen's Hub Food Center in Zumbrota. Island Market in Pine Island is about the same distance, at 9.1 miles from Mazeppa's city center.
Mazeppa City Administrator Karl Nahrgang said people who live in communities without a grocery store have to use better planning and preparation.
"They may not go to the store as often as if they had a grocery right in the community, but they stock up when they buy, or they plan their groceries around trips to these other communities," Nahrgang said.
Things aren't much better in Wanamingo. The western Goodhue County city has more than 1,000 residents (1,086 in 2010) but no grocery store. Like the folks in Mazeppa, Wanamingo's residents find Nilssen's to be their closest store. The city's other option is to drive a little more than 10 miles to Kenyon Market in Kenyon or more than 13 miles to the store in Pine Island.
Brent Bosch, general manager for Sunshine Foods, which operates 17 locally owned stores, including three in southeast Minnesota, said it's getting to the point where any town with fewer than 2,500 people can't support a full-service grocery store.
Food deserts, false oasis
"E-commerce is ruining rural America," Bosch said, pointing to one of the main sources of competition grocers are finding in small towns.
The other players in the market that are taking a bite out of grocers' business are stores like Dollar General. Bosch said Dollar General, which does not have butcher counters, produce, full dairy sections or bakeries — the four store sections that separate full-service grocers from Dollar General stores — runs off a different business model, avoiding the high labor costs of delis and produce aisles.
Instead, it brings cheaper costs on canned goods, paper products, cleaning products and other items that don't require heavily refrigerated sections and specially trained labor.
"Dollar General comes in and takes 25 percent out of the center of the store," Bosch said.
At least once a month, he said, he fields calls from towns where a Dollar General has come in and driven a full-service grocer out of business, and now the city's economic leaders are looking for someone to save their grocery store.
Towns going hungry
Not that Dollar General doesn't have a place in rural America, Bosch said. Those towns too small for a grocery store are a perfect place for Dollar General or convenience stores like Kwik Trip.
Some towns, however, don't even have that much. A BP gas station and convenience store is the lone shopping option in Mazeppa, which has gone decades without a grocery store.
Nahrgang said that about eight or 10 years ago, the city made contact with a regional convenience store that said the town was too small, especially with that BP store as competition.
Not having a grocery store does affect economic development in town. Without a store, it becomes harder to draw other businesses to Mazeppa. But that's the niche Mazeppa fills for its residents.
"Small communities attract people looking for a quieter lifestyle and more value for their housing dollar," Nahrgang said. "To accommodate that, potential residents are willing to give up some of the amenities of a larger community. People moving to a community the size of Mazeppa would not expect a full line grocery store."