Grocery Industry Summit aims to Tackle Food System Insecurity

by Russell Schaffer | Rural Prosperity Nebraska

Centennial Market Cooperative
A customer makes a purchase at the Centennial Market Cooperative in Utica, Neb. Photo by Russell Shaffer
August 17, 2023

Lincoln, Neb. —The Nebraska Cooperative Development Center has teamed up with the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association to host the inaugural Grocery Industry Summit in Kearney on Thursday, Aug. 24. The free summit is designed for attendees to learn about, discuss and address the many challenges facing the grocery industry today. 

According to the USDA, a “food desert” is any community with a population of 500 or more that is more than 10 miles from a grocery store or food outlet. Currently more than one-third of Nebraska’s 93 counties struggle with food deserts. The summit aims to begin the conversations that will lessen that number.

“We want to provide an opportunity for everyone—grocers, wholesalers, vendors, policymakers and economic developers—to learn more about and discuss the state of the grocery industry in Nebraska,” said Ansley Fellers, executive director of NGIA. “There are many opportunities and challenges across the industry. It’s really important we find ways to connect individuals to each other and to the right opportunities." 

Charlotte Narjes, director of NCDC, said, “There are many factors that make running a grocery store in a rural community challenging. Outdated equipment and high transportation costs are among the most common. But also, when a grocer decides to retire, most are unfamiliar with the business transition process, so they simply close their doors.”

That very reason, the lack of education on how to sell a grocery store or transition out of ownership effectively, is the foremost reason many Nebraskans struggle with easy access to healthy food, according to Narjes. Part of the summit will address those transition models, covering the transfer of ownership as well as restructuring into a cooperative model.

“There are ongoing challenges facing certain populations and businesses, such as a lack of infrastructure, capital, economies of scale, and labor,” said Fellers. “The grocery industry in particular runs on very slim margins, and independent owners are disproportionately impacted by arbitrary mandates and policy changes.”

Both the NCDC, a university-run organization, and the NGIA, a trade association for those in the food industry, offer education, training and technical assistance to cooperatively-owned businesses, including cooperatives, LLCs, and other business structures. They also share various resources and access to support services across Nebraska. The summit will act as a one-stop shop for attendees to learn about all of these possible solutions and how to implement them in their communities and counties.

“Whether an attendee is affiliated with a current grocery or convenience store, interested in opening a store, or trying to keep a store in or attract a store to their community, we hope they walk away optimistic about resources available and confident they know where to go or who to contact when they need assistance,” said Fellers. 

The summit will be held at the Younes Conference Center South, 416 W Talmage Rd., Kearney, Neb., 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Registration is free and available on the NGIA website.

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