When you live in a small, rural Iowa town, you learn to live without many of the conveniences that city folks take for granted. Since moving out of the city, I miss going to movie theaters on weeknights, ordering Chinese delivery and the all-hours access to gourmet coffee.

While I don’t live near a 10-minute oil change shop or a fitness club, I’m thankful that our small town still has a grocery store just a few blocks from my home.

Our neighborhood grocery store is open seven days a week, until 9 p.m. every night, which comes in handy when we run out of coffee or have unexpected guests for dinner.

Yet talking with my neighbors, I discovered that many people don’t shop at the local grocery store. Instead, they drive to the big-city stores, where the prices are often cheaper, the produce is more exotic and the ice cream cooler stretches a quarter-mile long.

Admittedly, I’m also guilty of driving out of town to shop for groceries. I typically shop at three to four different grocery stores in a given month, a luxury of living close to Des Moines.

I prefer the meat counter at one nearby grocery store and the fresh produce selection in another. In addition, my husband and I occasionally splurge at ethnic and gourmet food stores, since we prefer to cook at home rather than drive to a restaurant.

But a few weeks back, I heard on the radio about a study highlighting the importance of rural grocery stores. The study, conducted by the Center for Rural Affairs in Nebraska, found that rural grocery stores serve as economic drivers, community builders, employers and meeting places.

Unfortunately, Iowa has lost almost one-half of its rural grocery stores over the last decade, from 1,400 stores in 1995 to a little more than 700 stores in 2005, according to the study. (See the full report at http://www.cfra.org/renewrural/grocery.)

Without rural grocery stores, local residents don’t have a choice of where to shop. They are forced to drive long distances to buy food, which isn’t an economical or viable option for the elderly or financially insecure families.

Needless to say, this news made me re-evaluate my own out-of-town shopping habit. Now I’m making an effort to shop at my local grocery store at least once a week. I’m finding that shopping close to home frees up more of my time and saves an extra trip to the gas pump.

I even had a revelation on one recent shopping trip. I wanted to try a recipe for pomegranate cookies, but I didn’t want to drive 20 miles just to buy a pomegranate. So I stopped at our local grocery store, and sure enough, there were pomegranates in the produce aisle.

That’s when I noticed that the small-town store actually had a lot more to offer than just eggs and milk. I found gourmet olives, cheeses and breads. I also discovered that many of the prices were the same as those at the big-city grocery stores.

It’s good to know that next time I’m craving pomegranate cookies, or bananas for my morning bowl of cereal, the small-town grocery store will be there to serve my family’s needs.

Written by Teresa Bjork
Teresa is a features Writer for the Iowa Farm Bureau.