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Buying safe, healthy food in rural America not always easy

Lack of healthy food on the table contributes to diet-related health problems such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

I grew up in rural Nebraska, right in the middle of the state, in a village named Loup City, located on the Middle Loup River. When I graduated from high school the town had 1,520 residents, a high school class of 65 boys and girls and three grocery stores.

It is the home of Polish Days and the Cow Pie 5K. Over half of the last names end in “ski” or “icz”. My nickname was Raymondowski.

There were three jobs available for high school boys who wanted or needed to earn income -- sacking groceries and carrying them to their car for the elderly, working for a farmer who had daughters but no sons and delivering daily newspapers.

I did the latter two. I like the outdoors.

The farmer’s wife’s father was the town’s revered general practitioner. That might have led me in the career direction I headed after scrubbing the manure off the dairy barn’s walls on a regular basis.

We bought our groceries at Ray’s Market, now known as Joe’s Market. Ray’s had a butcher and a walk-in freezer.

Dad bought a 4H calf every year at the Sherman County Fair, and it wound up in the freezer. On grocery buying day, I had two jobs -- pick out the cereal and go into that walk-in freezer and pick out the beef I wanted to eat the following week.

We had good, safe and healthy meat for sure, and our milk and eggs were delivered fresh to our door.

But now that community is down to 1,000 souls with school classes of 30 or so -- and one grocery store – there is not so much demand for fresh, healthy produce and meat.

It becomes a tough juggling act for Joe’s Market to determine how much perishable food, such as dairy products, to buy. Especially in the summer when a couple of families with 4-5 kids might take off on vacation and the demand plummets.

The closest community to be large enough to have a Walmart or Target and guaranteed daily fresh fruits, vegetables and meats is more than 50 miles away.

In Loup City, 20% of the dwellings are occupied by a single person over the age of 65. Many of that 20% are not too mobile; and for some driving any distance could be downright dangerous to themselves and others on the roads.

So they learn what day the truck comes that will bring the fresh foods and that is the day they shop -— and visit those coming in from the country to stock up.

When one thinks about how the Pawnee lived well off of this land, and that the local farmers are helping feed America and the world, it seems odd that just buying safe, fresh food is so dependent upon that one truck.

But other, smaller Nebraska towns have even seen their one remaining grocery store close for lack of business. Too many were willing to drive for an hour to find those less expensive and fresher foods in the large stores.

So they formed co-operatives, similar to the co-ops that served the area farmers.

Except these co-ops are grocery stores where stockholders buy $500 shares and invest in the store’s future, the store that hires locals and where locals congregate. The store that donates to local sports teams and helps attract new families.

These investors don’t expect big dividends; if they wanted that they would buy shares from another Nebraskan named Warren Buffett. Instead they expect local loyalty and pay for it at the cash register.

Rural Nebraskans are used to driving long distances for work, sports, health care and entertainment, so why not to buy groceries? A Walmart Supercenter is tough competition, but if people are financially invested in the local co-op there is one more good reason to shop local.

Big swaths of rural Nebraska look like “Food Deserts,” a U.S. Department of Agriculture coined term used to describe areas where sources of healthy food are very limited or non-existent, but where low income families and that aging population make it even more difficult to get to a store in a larger town.

Lack of healthy food on the table contributes to diet-related health problems such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

I don’t have any answers to this growing problem, but am happy that the co-op idea has taken off in Nebraska and is helping keep people and their pocketbooks in these small and shrinking communities.  

My mom moved to a larger community late in her senior years to be closer to health care and my older sister, but she still drove back to Loup City to play bridge and shop at Joe’s Market, simply out of loyalty.

I love small towns.

That is why I live in Timnath, Colo., a town with a one block long main street instead of nearby Fort Collins or Loveland.

But we do have a Walmart and a Costco, so my food selection is more than adequate and they provide a lot of tax revenue (yes, we have a sales tax on food out here which Nebraska does not).

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