A food desert in the middle of a food basket

The road into Cody, Neb., where you will find a bank, a filling station ... but no grocery store. At least not yet. (Photo courtesy Chelsey Fullerton,Cody-Kilgore High School)
About the author
Reporter, Iowa Public Radio
Clay Masters reports for Iowa Public Radio. He previously reported for Harvest Public Media while based at NET Nebraska.

The village of Cody, tucked in the north-central sand hills of Nebraska along the South Dakota border, has a population of just under 150.

It has a bank, hardware store, bar and grill, beauty salon and a filling station. What it doesn’t have is a grocery store. The last one closed 10 years ago.

“You’ve got to have groceries available to people. You just do,” said Eva Nollette, who has lived in the community since 1963 and was food service director at the local high school for 30 years.

The closest grocery store is 40 miles away, she said, making it a two-hour drive round trip —when the weather is cooperating. And it presents a particular problem when it comes to recruiting teachers to the area.

“They just stand there and gape at you and say, well, what’s wrong? Why can’t we buy groceries here?,” Nollette said.

Cody is in a rural food desert — one of more than 800 counties in the United States whose residents are 10 or more miles away from a full-service grocery store.  

“These communities are still viable communities, still existing, people living here,” said Jon Bailey, director of research and analysis for the Center for Rural Affairs. “The grocery store is another example of a community institution fading away.”

Bailey said that since the mid-1990s rural Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas have lost around half of their grocery stores. The Nebraska-based center has presented several reports on the impact and health implications. 

And that’s why teachers from Cody-Kilgore High Schoolasked the center for help in attaining a grant to address the problem in Cody. 

The school has been awarded a $75,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to house an entrepreneurship incubator within the school and ultimately establish a grocery story. Another $95,000 USDA grant will fund the actual building of that store — out of straw bales, as it turns out

Duane Schwartz is director of business and real estate with Affiliated Foods Midwest, an independent grocer’s cooperative that serves 15 states in the Midwest. He said there’s a lot of risk in opening or reopening a small town grocery store.  

“These small stores cannot support a lot of long-term debt,” he said. “It’s nice that it gets handed down generation to generation, but when those stores come up for sale, someone else taking over that business really cannot assume a lot of debt to make it profitable.”

But Bailey, with the Center for Rural Affairs, said rural towns 30 to 50 miles away from a large shopping area have a better chance of maintaining a grocery store than communities close to larger populations. He said it depends on the level of support from the community. He has seen a lot of small town grocery stores start with a lot of momentum only to have the town’s involvement slowly dissipate and eventually cause the store to shut down.  

Time will tell for Cody. The high school expects to open its store in the next few months.