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Bill would help rural stores replicate northeast North Dakota grocery co-op model

Senate Bill 2273, led by Sen. Janne Myrdal, R-Edinburg, would create a pilot grant program to provide grants for groups of grocery stores in North Dakota to create grocery co-ops like the RAD Co-op.

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In this Herald file photo from July 2022, Diana and Randy Hahn, owners of Jim's SuperValu grocery store in Park River, show climate-controlled grocery lockers that customers will access using a code to retrieve groceries ordered online as part of the Rural Access Distribution Co-op.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
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BISMARCK — After an innovative solution helped a group of rural grocery stores in northeastern North Dakota cut costs and increase food availability, legislators have introduced a bill that would help grocery stores in other parts of the state start similar programs.

At the end of 2021, the Rural Access Distribution Cooperative came to life in Walsh County, allowing three rural grocery stores to order groceries in bulk collectively and distribute items between the three stores and to other grocery pickup locations in the region.

The cooperative model, between Jim’s Supervalu in Park River, Hoople Grocery in Hoople and the Market on Main in Edinburg, has resulted in lower grocery prices and lower delivery costs for the stores, which carries through to customer prices. In the future, a grocery locker in Fordville will extend the program to a community without a grocery store.

Senate Bill 2273, led by Sen. Janne Myrdal, R-Edinburg, would create a pilot grant program to provide grants for groups of grocery stores in North Dakota to create similar co-ops. The bill’s co-sponsors in the Senate are Sens. Kathy Hogan, D-Fargo; Jerry Klein, R-Fessenden, and Shawn Vedaa R-Velva. In the House, the bill is co-sponsored by Reps. David Monson, R-Osnabrock, and Karla Rose Hanson, D-Fargo.

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Myrdal said food deserts in rural North Dakota have been a topic discussed by agriculture committees in the Legislature for the last few sessions, but legislators had left without finding a way to address the issue. But recently, Myrdal learned about the RAD Co-op and thought it could be a replicable system for other grocery stores in the state.

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Myrdal says introducing the bill and potentially having a hearing on it will help spread the word about the RAD Co-op. If the bill passes, she wants the grants to help grocery stores get off the ground to start a co-op, not pay for the whole program.

“My intent is to tell the story that we can do this, that other places can do it too and here’s a little incentive to maybe be able to do it,” she said. “I don’t want it to be a state-initiated program, it should be locally initiated with some state support.”

As introduced, the bill would set aside $2 million from the state’s general fund for a Department of Commerce grant program. The bill does not outline the cooperative grocery store model, but says that the Department of Commerce would establish a program to provide grants for “the preservation of rural grocery stores and increasing the availability of food access in the state.” Myrdal says the Department of Commerce would further outline the rules of the grant program, if the bill passes.

Now that the RAD Co-op has been operating for a full year, the numbers show that the system can work, said Alex Bata, chairman of the RAD Co-op Board. He says stores involved have done more business, had a greater variety of items and have been able to better combat inflation.

“That’s what makes this idea so different, is it’s here and with a small influx of investment from the government, we can establish these RAD Co-ops, so to speak, all over the state,” said Bata.

Monson, one of the House sponsors, lives in Osnabrock, a small town in northeastern North Dakota, where the nearest grocery store is 16 miles away. Knowing firsthand what it is like to live in a food desert, he says having the RAD Co-op model is important to other communities struggling with access to food.

“I can see this working very well for rural North Dakota for a lot of small towns,” he said. “It’s proven that it can be financially feasible and helpful for people in the area, so I think this bill will help to get another five or six, maybe more food co-ops like this going.”

After it was introduced, the bill was referred to the Agriculture and Veterans Affairs Committee. So far, no hearings for the bill have been scheduled.

Ingrid Harbo joined the Grand Forks Herald in September 2021.

Harbo covers Grand Forks region news, and also writes about business in Grand Forks and the surrounding area.

Readers can reach Harbo at 701-780-1124 or iharbo@gfherald.com. Follow her on Twitter @ingridaharbo.
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