Back from the Brink: Grocery Co-Op Conversion Prevents Food Desert in Rural Wisconsin

By Webster, Megan; Berner, Courtney | Rural Cooperatives, September-October 2014 | Go to article overview

Back from the Brink: Grocery Co-Op Conversion Prevents Food Desert in Rural Wisconsin


Webster, Megan, Berner, Courtney, Rural Cooperatives


The rural, family-owned grocery store is increasingly an endangered species in many parts of the United States. Challenges such as competition from "big box" and chain stores, changes in America's shopping and commuting patterns, and rural-to-urban migration have all led to the closing of many rural grocery stores.

Rural communities that have suffered this phenomenon are often called "food deserts," which the United States Department of Agriculture defines as areas "without ready access to fresh, healthy and affordable food." This is not a strictly rural phenomenon, as many food deserts also exist in low-income urban areas.

Local grocery stores are integral to keeping rural communities and economies vibrant, not only by providing access to food, but also by providing employment and tax revenue. The cooperative model is one possible tool that rural communities can use to keep their local grocery store in town.

Store on brink of closure

Residents of Plain, a town of 792 in southwest Wisconsin, fought the prospect of becoming a food desert when the owners of Phil's River Valley Supermarket decided it was time to sell the family business, ending nearly 95 years in operation. With the help of the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives (UWCC), the community successfully converted Phil's Supermarket to a consumer-owned grocery cooperative, keeping alive the nearly century-long tradition of providing food to Plain and the surrounding communities.

Courtney Berner, cooperative development specialist at UWCC, supported the conversion process from start to finish. She noted that a strong commitment from the local community kept the project moving forward during the nearly yearlong conversion process.

The interim board of directors, made up of local residents, led the process of incorporating as a legal entity and developing bylaws, implementing a survey, recruiting new members, securing member loans and hiring a general manager. Community engagement continued at the first annual meeting, with a very active electoral process for the first member-elected board of directors. …

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