Community grocers in rural areas struggling to keep shelves stocked

Max Garland, Staff writer

GRANTSVILLE — For shoppers at a Foodland in central West Virginia, getting every item on their grocery list is a sign of good luck. Each aisle has its share of bare shelves. Employees guide customers to possible alternative items. Produce and meat remain well-stocked, but everything else is slim pickings.

“I can’t find everything I need for the week here,” said local shopper Dana Shimer. “I have to go out of my way to the Wal-Mart. Here I can only get any essentials that I forget.”

The only grocery store in Grantsville, where the population hovers around 650, is the Foodland. Outside of convenience stores scattered throughout Calhoun County, with limited options outside of snack foods, the closest alternative is a Wal-Mart in Spencer. That’s a 40-minute drive from Grantsville.

“[Foodland] is the only grocery store within 25 miles,” said Grantsville Mayor Zach Hupp. “I would imagine a lot of people rely on it.”

Facemire Foods, the Gassaway-based company that owns and operates the Foodland, hasn’t been able to adequately supply the store for months, according to residents.

Corey Facemire, vice president of the company, said Thursday that the Grantsville Foodland is short in supplies because of the economic struggles in West Virginia adversely affecting sales. With the workforce in the state still adjusting to the loss in coal jobs and natural gas prices taking a hit, locals don’t have enough disposable income to buy as much food and keep the store afloat, he said.

“We’re in pretty rough shape in the state, and two of the biggest companies, Wal-Mart and Kroger, are opening up new places that we have to compete with,” he said. “We’re doing our best to get through this, and I think we’re just about over the hump.”

Facemire said the company would have a delivery come in Friday, the first in weeks. He expects that delivery to be the start of the Grantsville Foodland recovery and return to normal operations.

Facemire Foods’ struggles aren’t unique, however. SuperValu, Facemire Foods’ wholesaler and franchiser, is undergoing major changes of its own. The company announced the sale of its successful Save-A-Lot chain for $1.37 billion to a private-equity firm. Much of that will be used to reduce the company’s debt.

Facemire said SuperValu is evaluating the state of the current Foodland program, but he isn’t sure if the sale will impact his company immediately.

Three West Virginia Foodlands have already been converted to the Piggly Wiggly brand this year, leaving just 11 Foodland locations left, 10 of which are in West Virginia.
While SuperValu and Facemire Foods are taking a look at the current state of their business, massive retail competitors like Kroger are in good enough shape to take losses even when customers aren’t buying as much, according to Facemire.

“It’s tough competing with the Krogers and the big guys in the industry,” he said. “They are able to take some hits and still function.”

In Grantsville, Foodland and other businesses don’t have a large customer base to work with. The town’s population has been declining since the 1940s. Its income per capita is $16,616, well below West Virginia’s average of $23,237. Nearly 30 percent of people in Grantsville are below the poverty line.

Hupp said the limited number of nearby job opportunities means many residents go out of town for work.

“Any business that could come into the area the people would benefit from,” Hupp said. “I know with us being a small town it would be tough, but the people would definitely try to help out a new business.”

The lack of viable alternatives to Foodland in the area lead to an increased food insecurity rate for its residents. In Calhoun County, 16.7 percent of people do not have reliable access to healthy foods, according to a 2014 study by the hunger-relief organization Feeding America. Healthy foods are often found in groceries but are an uncommon sight in convenience stores. The rate was higher than the state’s average of 15.3 percent.

Grocery stores in rural areas across the United States have encountered difficulties in recent years. Populations continue to migrate toward the cities and retail chains keep adding more locations in driving distance, making it difficult for rural stores to stay afloat, according to a 2010 study done by Jon Bailey of the Center for Rural Affairs.

“Not only does the local grocery store provide the sustenance of life, it fills the roles of economic driver, community builder, employer and meeting place,” the study reads. “Unfortunately, many rural communities across the nation are losing local grocery stores, and residents are forced to leave their communities to purchase food, often at great expense due to great distance.”

Another study done by the University of Minnesota this year said roughly two-thirds of rural grocers in the state plan to leave the business within a decade. A nearby grocery store is a benefit to rural and disadvantaged areas, but Facemire said the business only goes as its customers go.

“We’re going through what many other businesses are going through right now,” he said. “If people don’t have the money, they can’t buy the groceries.”
Reach Max Garland at max.garland@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-4886 or follow @MaxGarlandTypes on Twitter.