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Strengthening Communities: keeping rural grocery stores open

Updated: Jan 12, 2023

grocery store owners
Brenda and Matthew McCasson, owners of Velva Fresh Foods and Drake Fresh Foods

A woman holding a large jar of sauerkraut in her tanned arms takes her place at the back of the line. She’s been waiting patiently as the young cashier chats casually with another woman purchasing some fresh hamburger buns and a pack of paper towels. There’s two women sharing a cart between them, who are excited to have each selected a different flavor of Oreos. “Everyone is getting ready for a baseball tournament,” Brenda McCasson explains, as we watch the cashier expertly bag items. The woman with the sauerkraut smiles and raises the jar in our directions, “Some of us like our hot dogs with a little flavor.”

The Drake Fresh Foods grocery store is the newest addition to Brenda’s newfound venture in providing small towns with access to groceries. Her first purchase was Velva Fresh Foods in February 2020, just one month before the COVID-19 pandemic made its presence known in North Dakota. “It was a chaotic time right off the bat,” she says. But the local fire department showed up to help stock shelves, and multitudes of people offered to help with the uptick in requests for grocery delivery. “It was humbling, but at the same time, that’s what small towns do. You have to rely on one another.”

We began our conversation in the small office at the back of the Velva store. By that afternoon, we’d made the half hour drive to the Drake store, Brenda leading the way in her van. It’s a drive she’s made plenty of times, especially given the gaps in the supply chain. “The challenge is finding distributors who can fit these small towns into their bottom line. Most won’t deliver to the really rural areas, so we’ll get what we need for both locations delivered to Velva and then haul Drake’s stock ourselves.” The “we” she refers to is herself and her husband, Matthew, who works his other full-time job on top of assisting with the stores. Today he’s helping at the Drake location and later, he’ll take us out back to show off the refrigerated trailer they’ve recently purchased, discussing the various features like a proud parent whose child has an impressive GPA.

Pride is something Brenda has in abundance – and not just Pride Dairy ice cream from Bottineau, which she stocks alongside other locally-made favorites like kuchen, potato salad, and the infamous Dot’s Pretzels (a global snacking phenomenon that originated right here, in Velva, North Dakota). Brenda’s pride originates in coming from a place where cooperation and generosity exist in abundance. Brenda was raised on a farm near Velva. After she met her husband and they moved out of state, they returned in 2007 to raise their family. “I’ve lived in Cleveland; I’ve lived in Columbus. But they don’t have what we do. I hope more young families discover communities like ours,” she says, “I’m serious about this! Velva is absolutely the best place to live.”

Brenda began working as the meat manager at Velva Fresh Foods in 2017. She says the transition from co-worker to owner hasn’t changed her relationship with her fellow employees after she bought the store. “I’m out on the floor like I always have been,” she says as she stacks a precarious tower of breakfast cereals, “It’s everybody’s duty to jump in. You can’t just take. And I mean that in this aisle, in this store, and outside as part of the community.” It seems the neighborhood shares her sentiment. One of the buildings nearby is a bar with large letters painted on the exterior: WHERE YOU’RE ONLY A STRANGER ONCE.

Each store operated by Brenda offers fresh produce, freshly prepared meat (Brenda insists on only stocking the best cuts and quality: “Let Walmart buy bulk, I’ll stick to getting the good stuff.”), baked goods, and even floral arrangements from a local vendor. They also offer deli and catering options as well as partnering with churches and the school to provide concessions. “Teachers are swamped enough as it is. If I can help by dropping off a pallet of Gatorade, of course I’ll do that for them. You need that fellowship with one another and that reciprocal relationship.” Brenda is distinctly aware of the role a school plays in the community. “The people who shop here went to my basketball games. They were in the stands cheering me on and now it’s my chance to take care of them.”

Velva is home to 1,100 people. Drake has 275 residents. Brenda’s main concern is keeping people in their homes as long as possible.

“When they approached me about taking on the Drake store, I ultimately took on the challenge because I care about these small towns. I think about the lady who can’t drive and is all alone. What is she going to do? Delivering groceries is a great way to check on people. They might not have any family or other visitors, but we can stop in with what they need and have a conversation with them.”

Distance is a fact of life in North Dakota. Time is often measured in miles, but if the miles add up to inconvenience, that’s when towns start to die. “Can you imagine living in a food desert where you have to drive a half hour to get milk? It wouldn’t be sustainable for families. You need access to food.” The food deserts Brenda refers to are areas with a restricted number of food retailers and limited availability of affordable, fresh produce and healthy grocery options. In 2008 the U.S. Department of Agriculture was designated by Congress to monitor the extent of food deserts in the United States. Rural areas are especially susceptible to food deserts. An estimated 20% of locally owned grocery stores have closed according to the Creating a Hunger Free North Dakota Coalition.

Brenda notes that growing up in Velva, there were a lot more mom & pop shops in town. She’s determined to bring Main Street back. Community willpower helps, but sometimes it takes reinforcements to reinvigorate and empower local entrepreneurs. The prior owner of Velva Fresh Foods had worked with Souris Basin Planning Council (SBPC), so an established partnership was there when Brenda sought to get a loan in purchasing the store.

“SBPC is helping me in all kinds of ways. We need some equipment in Drake, some of those refrigeration systems are ancient. The need is there, but it’s a matter of finding the necessary funding. SBPC has resources and ideas to get us where we want to be.”

Refrigerators won’t be the only changes. Brenda has extended business hours in the Drake location for those who work out of town to get a chance to grab what they need once they return home. The reception of her new ownership has gone beyond expectation. After she took ownership, she organized a meet and greet event to gauge community interest. She expected fewer than ten attendees; over 150 people showed up. She recognizes the lure of big box chains, but she always counters the lower prices with a caveat: “the big chains won’t come to your kid’s baseball game. They won’t donate to your next fundraiser. When you spend a dollar in our store, it stays here. It’s not about making a million bucks. It’s about strengthening the community.”

The line moves forward. The checkout counters are new as is the computer system. Brenda excuses herself to open the door for a customer with a walker. When she returns, the conversation turns to the future and the possibility of expansion.

“It takes someone stubborn and yeah, I am so stubborn. But that’s just how we are out here. If you love something, you do what it takes to keep it going.”

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