Born and raised in Mount Pulaski, a town in central Illinois, Tom Martin has seen several grocery stores shut their doors over the years. The last one closed in 2016.  It was hard to buy basic staples, such as milk or bread, after the independent grocery store’s closure, said Martin, 65, a local farmer. Residents in the 1,500-person town had to rely on the nearby dollar store and gas station to purchase food.

“When a grocery store closes up and it’s your last one,” Martin said, “you feel it immediately.”

Rural towns, such as Mount Pulaski, have lost grocery stores while dollar-store chains have been on the rise, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The departure of food stores leaves residents, especially those in areas with high poverty rates and dwindling population, with fewer options to buy food.  The loss of the only grocery store in town, Martin said, led the community to set up its own market. In June 2020, Market on the Hill opened its doors for the first time, offering neighbors fresh produce, meat and deli items. Many of the goods in stock are locally sourced.

“We’re continually trying to find out how to stock our shelves and what sells, what doesn’t sell,” Martin said. “We all came into this without much grocery experience.”

A USDA report published last year found that, across the U.S. in 2015, there were 23 counties – all rural – without food retailers. None were in Illinois. As the number of grocery stores declined from 1990 to 2015, dollar stores and supercenters steadily grew.

With the closure of grocery stores, rural populations are forced to drive longer distances to purchase food. This may be a larger issue for low-income residents who are not able to afford transportation to get groceries. In 2015, according to a USDA report, about 5 million people who lived in rural areas had to drive 10 miles or more to reach the nearest food store.

Martin was partly motivated to help build a community-owned market because elderly neighbors had to travel long distances to get groceries.

Read the full article about community-owned markets by Amanda Pérez Pintado at The Counter .