Why local grocers matter

There has been an influx of independent grocers coming to the Lansing area with markets such as the Old Town General Store, Sunrise Market and Monticello’s Market joining the ranks of the bigger Lansing independent grocers such as Goodrich’s and Horrock’s. All of the aforementioned markets offer a variety of foods to Lansing residents, but why choose to visit an independent grocer? What benefits are they adding to the community? As it turns out, where one purchases their food can be as important to the community they live in as what you choose to put in your body is to your health.

“Independent stores not only add to the local economy, they create a multiplier effect, with dollars spent there more likely to circulate within the community, rather than be sent to national or international headquarters,” says Dr. Phillip Howard, associate professor in the Department of Community Sustainability (CSUS) at Michigan State University.

The Department of Community Sustainability (CSUS) is a multidisciplinary department that focuses on combining the natural and social sciences to address contemporary issues of sustainability in agriculture, recreation, natural resources, and the environment. Dr. Howard has been at MSU for seven years, both teaching and doing research in the area of community, food and agriculture.

"When one chooses to spend their money at a large retailer or superstore, it essentially acts as a vacuum of money out of the community,” adds Howard.  A graduate student in his class once conducted a study as part of a class project on such concepts, and found that when looking specifically at wine carried in local retail versus larger stores and chains, wine retailers that did not extend beyond the state borders were much more likely to carry Michigan wines compared to the larger retailers.

Local grocers tend to be willing to deal with smaller suppliers and distributers, and some even focus all of their energy on keeping products local, as is the case with Rhea Van Atta, owner of the Old Town General Store.

This new addition to the independent grocer scene in Lansing has a focus of filling their shelves with Michigan products; first looking for Mid-Michigan providers, then expanding to the state, the Midwest, and finally the entire country. For those products that have to be outsourced beyond Michigan, the grocer will most likely purchase from someone that uses organic or non-GMO methods as opposed to conventional farming. Rhea says they also prefer farmers that practice sustainable methods of raising their animals and growing their crops.

As a specialty store, they are able to customize their products to meet the needs of the community they reside within. And those needs were researched by Rhea herself when determining what the Old Town General Store would offer for its community. An online survey was developed to find out what people were looking for in a neighborhood specialty grocer and the results confirmed what their intuition had been telling them - people wanted sustainable, ethical, healthy products within
easy access of the neighborhood.

Rhea got her start with the Old Town General Store last July, when the opportunity presented itself to purchase the building at 408 E. Grand River. When looking around the Old Town community, she noticed a lack of both restaurants and grocery stores. Those living within the Old Town neighborhoods had to travel outside of the neighborhood to get many of their groceries, so Rhea decided the time was right to open her own store - she saw a void and wanted to fill it. Her hope was that people would find it convenient in this urban setting, to be able to go somewhere close to home to purchase healthy foods and everyday staples.

While admittedly, there are plenty of convenience stores throughout the Lansing area; one is often limited in the quality of products they can purchase. This is where an independent grocer can set themselves apart by being the oasis in a food desert; gearing offerings to people that need something healthy to eat, yet do not have the resources, time, or desire to travel across town to a big supermarket.

Independent grocers can help to build Lansing’s economy, while catering to the specific needs of the city’s residents. According to Howard, if the city wants to see more independent grocers pop up, they must not subsidize the big retailers with tax breaks, transportation networks, and other benefits that do not typically go to smaller, local businesses. As consumers, the people of Lansing can choose to patronize these specialty stores for their items and not only fill their carts with healthy, delicious foods, but put money directly back into the community in which they live.

Shannon Nobles is a freelance Writer for Capital Gains.

Photos © Dave Trumpie
Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.
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