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Pilot project addresses rural food availability in places like Park River, N.D., and surrounding areas

The Rural Access Distribution Cooperative, in the works since 2014, began distributing to grocery stores and schools in Walsh County in November 2021. It continues to expand.

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Diana and Randy Hahn, owners of Jim's SuperValu grocery store in Park River, show climate-controlled grocery lockers that were recently installed outside the grocery store that customers will access using a code to retrieve groceries ordered online. Jim's SuperValu is partnering with grocery stores in Hoople and Edinburg N.D., forming a Rural Access Distribution Coop to serve the rural communities.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
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PARK RIVER, N.D. – Walsh County, like many rural areas, has a shortage of grocery stores. Some towns in the county are without grocery stores, forcing residents to drive elsewhere for groceries.

“Food is a major issue with why people don’t move out here – it’s a food desert,” said Alex Bata, a resident of Adams, North Dakota.

But a willingness to take risks and collaborate among business owners in Walsh County has allowed the county to address the issue of food availability. The county is now home to the Rural Access Distribution Cooperative, a North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives pilot project. Bata is the project's chairman.

The co-op is a partnership of communities and businesses with a goal of bringing food, with more variety and better prices, to Park River, Hoople, Edinburg, Fordville and surrounding areas.

The pilot project, in the works since 2014, began distributing to grocery stores and schools in Walsh County in November 2021. It continues to expand.

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In 2014, Lori Capouch, rural development director for the NDAREC, started receiving calls for grocery stores in need of grant funding to cover operating losses. NDAREC conducted a survey of grocery stores across the state to identify the challenges faced by rural grocery stores and ways the stores could be helped.

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For small grocery stores, explained Capouch, volume is a problem. Stores often get items at a cheaper price per item when buying larger quantities, so small stores that have less space and less demand are paying more per item than a big store.

“So in order to compete, we knew that we had to get our volume up, and the only way to get volume up is to form regional collaborations because we just have a limited population base,” said Capouch.

The same stores also struggled with transportation efficiency, with multiple trucks bringing small orders to rural grocery stores. The drives up delivery fees.

The RAD Co-op is designed to address both of these issues. The co-op creates a system of grocery delivery that includes grocery stores in three communities: Jim’s Supervalu in Park River, Hoople Grocery in Hoople and the Market on Main in Edinburg. The grocery stores place orders collectively and food is delivered to Park River, then split up to be delivered to Hoople and Edinburg on the RAD Co-op’s delivery truck.

Although the three grocery stores vie for the business of the same limited population, Diana Hahn, owner of Jim’s Supervalu; Jenna Gullickson, owner of Hoople Grocery; and Cindy Vargason, manager of the Market on Main, already knew and collaborated with each other. That made Walsh County an ideal place to test the cooperative model, said Capouch.

“That’s unusual because they’re competitors by nature, but they were already cooperating, so they showed themselves as very strong cooperators,” she said.

Along with having stores collaborate on grocery orders, the RAD Co-op is bringing climate-controlled grocery lockers to Fordville, which does not have a grocery store, and Park River. On July 1, the first lockers were installed in Fordville and Park River. Once online, people will be able to place an online grocery order and will be notified when that order is ready for pickup. When groceries are delivered, customers receive a code that unlocks the locker, allowing them to retrieve their groceries at any time.

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The locker system in Park River is located outside Jim’s Supervalu and has 24 lockers — eight for shelf-stable food, eight for refrigerated food and eight for frozen food. The one in Fordville is located inside of Wells Drinking Well, a restaurant and bar, and has 16 lockers — eight refrigerated and eight frozen. In Fordville, shelf-stable food orders will be stored on a shelving unit next to the lockers, as grocery pickup is in an indoor, monitored space.

At both locker locations, grocery orders will be available for pickup 24 hours a day, adding convenience for those that are not able to make it to a grocery store during conventional hours.

“Especially in the summertime, there might be somebody working construction, where those guys can be working until after 10,” said Steve Wells, owner of Wells Drinking Well.

Grocery deliveries through the RAD Co-op started in November 2021, and soon after, a new opportunity appeared. In November, half of North Dakota’s school districts lost their food distributor when Cash-Wa Distributing ended its contract with the North Dakota Educators Services Co-op . One of these districts was the Valley-Edinburg School District, which has schools in Hoople, Crystal and Edinburg. The RAD Co-op was there to fill the gap.

“We happened to, for once, be ahead of the game and having this distribution hub made things much easier for us to reach very quickly,” said Hahn.

The district also lost a contract with a milk distributor, so the co-op started delivering milk as well. Going into the next school year, the RAD Co-op board plans to continue working with the school district.

“We just did it for the last three months of the school year last year, so we were just trying to get them fed and get it figured out,” said Hahn. “This next school year, we should have a much better process down and have a better distribution piece for that.”

The RAD Co-op is not only a new system for Walsh County and North Dakota, but may be the first of its kind in the country.

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“To our knowledge, we are the first rural group that has tackled distribution,” she said. “A lot of leaps of faith, for sure.”

With the challenges of creating a co-op system with no blueprint, there have also been ongoing supply chain issues and rising prices due to inflation at the same time NDAREC has tried to get the co-op up and running.

“It’s been a much slower moving process than you would envision from the time we started, but it isn’t like it’s a co-op issue, it’s more of a worldwide issue that everybody in every business is having to suffer with trying to get any kind of thing up and running and consistent,” said Wells.

Until all the locations in the co-op are running, he says, it will be hard to gauge exactly how well the RAD Co-op is filling the gaps it was created to fill.

Capouch hopes that someday, the RAD Co-op will be an example for how other rural areas across the country can face food availability issues. With a well-documented process and an impact evaluation underway by the NDSU Center for Social Research, resources will be available online for other organizations interested in trying a similar system.

“We really do hope that it can be replicated,” said Capouch.

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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