November 6, 2020; We Are Iowa
The small town of Manson, Iowa, located roughly halfway between Des Moines and Sioux City, with an estimated population of 1,636 people, lost its only grocery store a year ago. Given the town’s small size, such an outcome is not surprising. But how the community responded and ultimately resurrected its grocery store is noteworthy.
“It wasn’t an ultimate shock when the grocery store closed, because it went away slowly,” relates Mayor Dave Anderson. “But when it finally left, everyone was like…now what do we do?”
As Anderson points out, “I don’t think you can grow a small rural community at all without a grocery store. It’s kind of the hub.”
And so, a few months after the store’s doors closed, some city residents sought a way to bring it back. They created the Manson Grocery Store Committee.
As it happens, a former school superintendent coming out of retirement played a key role in helping the small town develop the Manson Hometown Grocery. “Being the retired one with some time on my hands, I was made board president, which led to working with volunteers and skilled people to make this happen,” says Mark Egli, who had been superintendent for the Manson Northwest Webster Community School District from 2000 to 2017.
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Egli made good use of the close bonds he had formed with local residents during those 17 years, and got, reports Elias Johnson for We Are Iowa, “fathers and sons, husbands and wives” to volunteer their time and bring the old building back to life.
Part of the effort involved shifting the grocery store from a for-profit enterprise to a nonprofit. “This is the first nonprofit grocery store in the state of Iowa as far as I know,” Anderson says. Making it a nonprofit helped generate over $100,000 in donations.
While the nonprofit grocery store may be Iowa’s first, there are many examples one can cite in other states. The nonprofit mission is often focused on providing healthy food to low-income residents. Back in 2013, NPQ’s Ruth McCambridge wrote about one store in Chicago. In 2019, NPQ’s Debby Warren highlighted nonprofit grocery stores in Waco, Texas; Baltimore, Maryland; and Washington, DC, as well as an effort called the Grand Avenue Market in Plains, Kansas, a town of 1,500—in other words, a similar size to Manson.
Perhaps one of the more successful efforts is Lake Grocery in Willow Lake, South Dakota, population 363. (Surrounding Clark County is home to an estimated 3,736 people.) Back in 2016, we noted it had been operating as a small-town nonprofit grocer for five years, and it looks like it has continued to garner positive customer ratings as recently as last year.
Will the new nonprofit grocer in Manson make it? That, contends Egli, will depend on Manson’s residents. “The true community base will be supporting the store,” Egli explains. “It may not be the cheapest, but if we’re going to keep it going, we have to support it to make it feasible for families to shop here and not need to go elsewhere.”—Steve Dubb