Small grocery store fills gap in W. Minn. 'food desert'

Bonnie's Hometown Grocery
Bonnie Carlson, owner of Bonnie's Hometown Grocery, talks to customer and birthday boy, Nathanael Okeson, 5, on Thursday, March 29, 2012, at her store in Clinton, Minn. Okeson, his mom and grandma stopped in to purchase a chocolate birthday cake.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR

Nestled in the heart of farm country, the town of Clinton is surrounded by food — fields of corn and soybeans.

Those crops aren't consumed by area residents though — most are processed into livestock feed or ethanol. Residents have to drive more than 10 miles to get to a supermarket. That distance makes Clinton, in far western Minnesota's Big Stone County, a food desert.

Well, technically.

There is an oasis: Bonnie's Hometown Grocery.

"I like what I do," store owner Bonnie Carlson said. "You need a grocery store in a small town. The town would go kaput, I think, if we didn't have a store here."

See a map with stories from Minnesotans who travel long distances to get groceries.

Carlson took over the store 12 years ago when it was on the verge of closing. The town banker, concerned about losing the town's last grocery store, visited her at home to ask her to buy the store.

In rural areas across Minnesota, thousands of residents live in communities without a major grocery store. That can create a real challenge for low-income residents who end up spending more time and money on their food. In Big Stone County, small grocers like Bonnie's are helping fill the gap.

She knows everyone who walks in. Bonnie's is small, but packed full. There's fresh meat, which Carlson cuts herself, plus a case of dairy and a cooler of produce. It doesn't have the variety you'd find at a large supermarket, but if people want something, Carlson will get it.

When the town's drug store closed, she added greeting cards. She has the town's only bridal registry. It's the kind of place where the staff knows who's sick, and who's recovering.

Carlson admits prices can be higher than at supermarkets.

"Probably because of the quantity," she said. "They can get bigger quantities. They make better margins on certain items than I can. They have the volume. We don't."

Carlson said it's getting harder to make money. Food prices are up, her electric bill is rising — now $1,600 a month — and she's losing customers to both bigger stores and a declining population. So a few years ago, she decided to do something new: She held a fundraiser. Nearly everyone in town showed up.

"You don't see main street full of cars very often," Carlson said. "It's was just phenomenal to see that."

DECLINING POPULATION

Clinton residents are fighting to keep Bonnie's around. You hear it everywhere you go, including the corner gas station, where reticent farmers praise Bonnie's and worry the effect its closing would have on the elderly.

County Commissioner Brent Olson worries about that too, in a county where a quarter of the population is at least 65 years old.

"A lot of really elderly people who are poor, they're not going to drive a long ways," Olson said. "If you're 90 years old, and you have a car that's a '78 Dodge, you're not going to drive 60 miles."

And some people do drive quite a ways — it's a little more than 10 miles to Ortonville, and some drive 60 miles to the nearest Walmart.

When Olson was a kid, there were two grocery stores in Clinton. But the population of Big Stone County has fallen by half since 1940. Olson said that makes it harder to keep stores open, and he worries about what happens if they close.

"You aren't going to see something catastrophic," Olson said. "You're not going to see starving children on the street. ... What you're going to see is people who have less good food, a little more ill health. It just puts everyone on the margins a little closer to the edge than we're all comfortable with."

"BONNIE'S IS THE FRONT LINE"

Kathy Draeger, statewide director of the University of Minnesota's Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships as well as an adjunct professor of agronomy and plant genetics, lives on a farm outside Clinton and is one of Bonnie's customers. She blogs about living in Big Stone County.

"A small-town grocery store like Bonnie's is the front line in making sure there's food access in a place like Big Stone County," she said.

The United States Department of Agriculture defines a "rural food desert" as a census tract in which at least 33 percent of the tract's population resides more than 10 miles from a big grocery store, and at least 20 percent of people live below the poverty line.

Draeger said the U.S. government doesn't even count little stores in their food desert studies. But here, they make all the difference. As she sees it, small grocers need help providing healthy food at affordable prices.

"We simply will never have a large supermarket in this area," Draeger said. "We have got to support the rural infrastructure that we have."

That means at times doing things that would never happen at a chain grocery store. When Bonnie's needed a new produce cooler, a nonprofit group, the Land Stewardship Project, helped the store buy one. It also helped get local produce onto Bonnie's store shelves.

Bonnie Carlson adds up sales from the previous day.

"Really quiet, not good," she said.

She used to bring in $1,500 a day. Now it's more like $700. And she's thrilled about her new produce cooler, but she had to cover the cost of installing it. And then there's the big problem: fewer people coming in the door.

"We've lost a lot of customers that have died," she said. "I sat down the other day and thought about all the ones that used to come in here, and it's sad. You're losing your customers, and you don't get new ones back in."

And despite all the community help, she's surprised that her store is still open.

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