GROTON — Ruth Williams hasn’t seen a grocery store in the town of Groton since the 1990s, when Great American was there.
In May 2018, residents in the area were again hit with a closure, when the 7-Eleven shut down. While it was a convenience store, residents used it to grab small items they may have forgotten while shopping, often canned or boxed goods and drinks. Now the only stores left in the area — Red Apple Food Mart, Express Mart and Family Dollar — don’t fulfill the health and pricing needs of the people in the town.
A grocery store needs to have everything from fresh produce and meats to canned and boxed goods, said Laura Strange, a spokeswoman for the National Grocers Association.
So, while the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t list Groton as a “food desert” on its Food Desert Locator map, a Food Bank of the Southern Tier representative thinks differently.
“I would call it one,” said Randi Quakenbush, the advocacy and education manager.
Food deserts are places that don’t have access to fresh produce or other whole foods and are usually found in impoverished areas, where potential customers lack the money to buy items usually found in grocery stores.
Residents have had to find solutions to the grocery gap on their own. They have changed how they shop, started co-ops to purchase larger quantities of locally sourced food and funded food giveaways and meals through grants.
“I think that as a community, you build your networks and you kind of problem solve how we’re going to do something,” Williams said.
The problem with keeping a grocery store open in Groton could arise from a combination of factors, said Jennifer Tavares, the president of the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce.
“Usually these decisions are based on the market,” she said.
Grocery stores already have small profit margins — about 1 to 2 percent.
Tavares said having a store in Groton would be based a lot around consumer choice and ensuring the residents would support the store.
“It’s really important for a community to support that store and not get in their car and go shop somewhere that is 20 to 30 miles away,” Strange said.
The National Grocers Association represents independent stores and the manufacturers that supply them. Strange said the association has seen independent stores more willing to open in areas that lack grocery stores because the owners can be more flexible.
“We think independent grocers are uniquely positioned to address food deserts because they are nimble, they are agile, they can figure out how to help,” Strange said. “They become ingrained in the community and in turn they look at people in the community to support them.”
And a USDA Nov. 2017 study supports the concept.
“Rural counties are split into those that are adjacent to urban counties and those that are not. On average, independent stores outnumbered chain stores — 2.1 and 1.9, respectively — in nonadjacent rural counties,” the study stated.
Shopping habits change
Because the closest grocery stores are anywhere from 13 to 15 minutes away by car, residents have begun looking at purchasing more locally grown options from farmers or planning ahead to shop.
People without cars or unable to drive are left trying to secure a ride from a neighbor, take a bus or just shop locally with farmers or at the Family Dollar, Williams said.
For Sherry Saam this means knowing what she needs to buy and having an idea of the stores available for whatever place she may be.
“Usually I just buy groceries wherever we’re at,” Saam said. “If we’re in Ithaca, I’ll just stop there or Walmart or Aldi in Cortland. You know, just wherever we’re at, at that time and depending on my needs too.”
Over the years, Williams has not only planned out her meals and shopping, but she and other residents have gone a more local route and bought directly from farmers.
“I started a food-buying co-op so we could go in and buy lots of things like meats and vegetables,” Williams said. “I find that supporting your local agriculture not only keeps more money local but you get a better product than going to the grocery store. Now that’s not meaning that I don’t ever go to a grocery store.”
‘It’s an all-day trip’
When she’s in a pinch, Williams will buy boxed items or canned goods from the Family Dollar on West South Street, otherwise she goes to Aldi on Route 13 in Cortlandville.
“I visit the dollar store all the time for little incidental things, but not having something here that’s sustainable to the people here is meaningful,” Williams said.
Store Manager Melissa Reynolds said there’s been an uptick in people stopping there for items since the 7-Eleven closed. Reynolds also noted for some people it’s the only place they can do their shopping. Family Dollar stores offer staples — milk, bread and eggs — but that’s not a full-service grocery.
However, Williams may now rely on that limited inventory after she was in a car accident recently and lost her form of transportation.
“All I’ve got is the Dollar Store and the gas station, so my choices are very limited and that’s not healthy for my family to have to go to the Dollar Store. Not only is it not healthy foods, they’re more expensive typically in the long run and the variety isn’t there, the healthier choices aren’t there, the fresh isn’t there.”
She said there is no organized group that helps bring people to the store either in Groton. People would have to take the bus.
“If you’re a family and you don’t have transportation and you have to take the bus, you have to take your kids, it’s an all-day trip,” she said.
She also noted the bus doesn’t go to Cortlandville, where some of the closest stores are.
“I don’t know what the bottom line solution here is for Groton, but it’s desperately needed,” she said.
The Groton Public Library, has added food to its collections of books and periodicals, becoming a food hub for residents. It offers a monthly community meal, and weekly fresh food giveaways, and library Director Sara Knobel is doing what she can to ensure residents have access to fresh produce and other items.
Fresh fruit, free, is available at the checkout desk, purchased with a grant giving the library $50 a week to buy locally sourced produce. Knobel hopes to get another grant giving her $100 a week to spend.
Knobel also has a community meal every third Tuesday of the month. On Tuesdays people can also come down and get a ticket to get food. They recently had bread, onions, watermelons, apples, lettuce and other items being offered.
Over the summer, Knobel had free lunches for any visitor under 19, and partnered with the Food Bank of the Southern Tier over the summer to set up a farmers market for the kids to take produce home.
The food bank was also doing a mobile food pantry but ran into problems with staffing and had to stop until it could find a solution.
Groton Food Providers holds a food pantry every second and fourth Saturday of the month from 10 to 11:30 a.m. at the Groton Assembly of God on McKinley Avenue.
Local farmers have begun selling directly to residents. Williams noted that some Amish farmers set up a market on Wednesdays at the Family Dollar and Bad Apple Farm had a stand near the elementary school.
But the stands stay open only for the season and the library doesn’t ensure access for everyone. On Tuesday, about 30 people took part in the monthly meal and food giveaway. Those who came early got first access and first choice to the food. The later arrivals were left sifting through the rest.
And while there’s a pantry in town, it has limited hours and opens only twice a month, leaving folks to figure out what to do in the meantime.
Visions for a store
While Williams likes shopping at Aldi, she said she doesn’t think one would survive in Groton.
“I think Aldi wouldn’t even be interested in coming here,” she said. “I think they would want a little more money coming in. What I sort of envision is a private owner coming in and offering a variety and thinking outside the box.”
She could see someone coming in, procuring from nearby farmers and selling their items at the store.
“We have to be very creative,” she said.
However, Saam said for the price and quality at Aldi, it’s worth seeing if one could open in the area.
“I know of a lot of people who love shopping there,” she said.
Tavares said Groton would be comparable to Dryden or Trumansburg where they have an independent grocer rather than a chain store.
“Something that is small and more local is more likely to succeed in that area,” she said.
Plan. Plan. Plan ahead — at least for now.
It’s the mantra Williams follows when shopping. She’ll decide what meals she’s going to make for the week and see what items she has already and then make a list of what she needs.
“Get down to a routine weekly, this is what we’re going to have, and stock your pantry,” she said. “If you’re stocking your pantry I think you have half of it beat.”
She also said if people can and are able to afford to buy and store items in bulk, they should.
It’s also about working with what is in the community already.
Quakenbush said the food bank plans a spring event that will provide leadership and public speaking training for those who deal with food insecurity. That education will in turn give them access to advocacy opportunities like getting federal programs or better access to food.
“We do see a need for more localized advocacy, so if that’s something we see in Groton, it’s something we can support,” she said. “We don’t have an idea of what it will look like exactly until we are on the ground assessing their needs.”
Williams said another thing that could be done is creating a carpool to help get people to the store.
“There’s many pieces to this puzzle,” Williams said. “We need to bring people to the grocery store, so maybe having a little carpool situation would be fabulous to do that, but we really need to get something into Groton. We need to pull something in here that is sustainable, that is workable.”