A community seeking to establish a rural grocery store should understand the local food system

Every community seeking rural grocery store should asses the assets of the community, understand the markets and take a fair look at the challenges and opportunities that exist.

A good place to start for any community seeking a rural grocery, would be to fully understand the local community food system. The elements of the food system in each community are the same, yet the characteristics of each element will vary greatly from one community to the next. Basic elements of a food system can be divided into two groups: pre-consumer and post-consumer.

The pre-consumer pieces of a community food system are production, processing and distribution, while the post-consumer parts are consumption and waste management. Of course, the rural grocery is only one piece of the system, but a full understanding of the food system would enhance the strategy, and ultimately provide the best chance to maximize the positive effect on the community.

For each part of the food system, the community would examine the local assets and identify gaps or shortcomings in the particular part of the system. Then, based on those assets and shortcomings, an understanding of opportunities and potential problems can be better understood.

How does a community get started? One potential way for a small community, as practiced by the Oregon Food Bank, is a simple potluck supper. During the potluck, a facilitated conversation takes place and the community food system is fully discussed. Once the local food system is fully understood, then the strategy for the local grocery store can be fully developed. Other potential ways to fully understand the local food system would be a dedicated day-long session with selected members of the community, or possibly through hiring a consultant to complete the analysis. Understanding the existing conditions in the local community is an important step that will prevent mistakes and help achieve a positive outcome.

Since every community has different assets and needs, attracting and retaining a local grocery will be different for each community. Therefore, each community should carefully assess and plan how to keep or establish their local grocery. Extension Educators at Michigan State University Extension and Innovation Counselors at the Michigan State University Product Center assist food business operators in the establishment of food related businesses. MSU Extension can assist a community with facilitated conversations through our Extension Educator network. For further information and assistance with employee communications please contact your local Michigan State University Extension office. 

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