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BREWSTER, Neb. — Roger Chilen remembers what Brewster was like before the town largely became a collection of vacant storefronts and crumbling houses.
There were businesses and families and crowded town barbecues in front of the bar. For residents, it was a good life. But when he returned to Brewster in 2000 after living in Denver, something was different in this hamlet in the Nebraska Sandhills, now home to just 12 people.
Spencer’s Market, Brewster’s only grocery store, had closed. Nobody left in town can quite remember when — sometime in the 1970s or ’80s. The building was turned into a saloon, which soon shut its doors as well.
“That was a real loss when they went out,” Chilen said. “You adapt. You have to.”
These days, he and his wife have a garden where they grow food in the summer. They can and pickle produce for the winter, and she bakes bread. All the grocery stores in Blaine County had closed by the mid-1990s, locals say. Now the closest grocery store to Brewster is more than 40 miles away.
As the populations of places like Brewster and nearby Dunning dwindle and rural grocery stores close, vast stretches of rural America are becoming food deserts, defined in a rural context as living more than 10 miles from a grocery store. By one estimate from the Missouri-based Rural Sociological Society, nearly 98 percent of America’s food deserts are in nonmetropolitan areas, with huge areas of Nebraska, the Dakotas and Alaska falling under that definition. Many people of this part of Nebraska, like the Chilens, are self-sufficient, but rural food deserts pose a serious health risk to low-income and elderly residents, experts say.
For the Chilens, fresh fruits and vegetables are the hardest things to come by, especially in winter.
“We have to drive 45 minutes to get it,” he said, “You spend $20 on gas to go to the grocery store. And when you’re living on Social Security, you don’t go unless you have to.”
For many in rural Nebraska, driving that far to get groceries is a part of life. Most Brewster residents said they make a big trip to a grocery store about once a month, often passing farms and ranches where, ironically, some of that food is grown.
“You have to stock up and hope they don’t spoil before you use it,” said 79-year-old Jean Ann Teahon, who lives in Dunning, of her trips to buy produce, adding that because residents are used to driving far for doctor appointments, 40 miles to buy food doesn’t seem too out of the ordinary. In the winter, when she can’t grow vegetables, “you suck it up,” she said with a laugh.
“Everybody that lives there chose to live there, and there’s pros and cons to anywhere you live,” said Chuck Cone, the director of the Loup Basin Public Health Department, which encompasses Blaine County. “If you get used to it, you don’t know what you’re missing.”
But the people of Burwell, about an hour east of Brewster, are still trying to get used to it. One of the town’s two grocery stores shut its doors last year, and the one left has been overwhelmed by demand.
“There’s people from all over the area coming [to buy food], and all of a sudden the grocery store in town closes down,” said John Schere, who runs an ice cream shop in town. “Then I notice you go in [to the other store] to get milk, and there’s no milk. You go in to get butter, and there’s no butter.”
“We go to Grand Island once a week,” he said. “I generally don’t like to buy produce here” because fruits and vegetables are not ripe at all or too ripe by the time they make it to the Burwell grocery store. Grand Island is more than 80 milesaway.
“You assume you’re healthier if you’re eating more fruits and vegetables. We preach and promote that like they do everywhere,” said Cone, who is also the mayor of Burwell. “I guess logic would dictate that we’re not as healthy as we could be if we ate more fruits and vegetables.”
In neighboring Missouri, Connie Mefford, a community development specialist with the University of Missouri Extension, said there are health risks that come with living in a food desert, particularly among elderly residents.
“They get more sodium through canned goods, so you’re going to have higher sodium levels, and that’s not good for blood pressure,” she said. “There’s just a lot of things that go along with being able to have access to fresh fruits and vegetables.”
Mefford helped facilitate the opening of a grocery store in Pilot Grove, Missouri, in 2013. The town is home to about 700 people, many of whom are elderly or low-income, she said.
“There was a big excitement from the elderly in the community,” she said. “Even when they have a family member that will do their grocery shopping outside the community, they tend to not want to bother that person a lot. What they do is depend more on canned goods than less fresh produce, less fresh meats. So they’re not getting the nutritional value that they should be getting.”
The store, however, closed by November of last year. Mefford said the customer base wasn’t large enough and the store could not get distributors to serve Pilot Grove, even though it’s less than 10 miles off a major interstate.
“It really takes quite a bit to retain a grocery store,” she said. “And I think people don’t understand the cost, because the markup on those items is not that great.”
And therein lies the challenge for rural grocers: making enough money to keep the store open as rural populations decline. In Blaine County, the population has declined by nearly 70 percent since the end of World War II. According to U.S. Census data, urban areas continue to grow, and rural areas are depopulating. That depopulation is most pronounced in areas of the Great Plains, Midwest and South as well as parts of some Western states.
Jerry Zinn, the commissioner of Vinton County, Ohio, told The Columbus Dispatch, “We contacted every chain you can imagine” after the town of McArthur lost its grocery store last year. Only one called back, he said, and “they dropped interest after learning our demographics.”
“As the population has been dwindling in the area, you have less and less customer base,” Cone said. “It’s harder and harder [for grocers] to make ends meet.”
“I don’t have a solution. I really don’t,” Mefford said. “We’re going to, as a nation, have to think about how we do things.”