EKALAKA — Getting fresh fruits and vegetables here in one of Montana’s most isolated small towns, hours from the nearest shopping center, can be an ordeal.
It got more difficult last winter when the only grocery store in the county, the Main Street Market, was gutted by fire a week before Christmas. (The cause, the Ekalaka Eagle reported at the time, was under investigation).
“There was a panic,” said Eva Grimes, who runs the local coffee shop, Stompin’ Grounds, with her mother.
Main Street Market had been the only grocer in Carter County, a sparsely populated region in Montana’s southeast corner that’s nearly three times the size of Rhode Island, but home to just 1,200 people. The next-closest option for residents doing last-minute holiday food shopping was Reynolds Market in Baker, a half-hour drive north, or longer in bad weather.
In Ekalaka, where roughly 360 people live inside town limits, food options are limited in the best of times. Aside from the grocer and a part-time food bank, residents have their pick between Stompin’ Grounds, one bar with limited food service, and a single diner. The community is too small to have franchise restaurants or a chain gas station convenience store, and the closest big-box stores like Walmart are in Miles City, 115 miles away, or Spearfish, South Dakota, a 120-mile drive.
Those distances make food logistics in this ranching town a challenge, particularly when it comes to fresh fruits and vegetables. As is the case in rural communities nationwide, the cost of shipping forces local stores to post relatively high prices. Given the limited local customer base, it’s also tricky for owners to decide how many tomatoes or packaged greens to order from suppliers to keep their shelves stocked without losing too much produce to spoilage.
“It’s hard to get food here that isn’t deep-fried,” Grimes said. “Everything falls off a truck — frozen food is something that lasts.”
Ekalaka, after Main Street Market’s closure, is an extreme example, but “food deserts,” where it’s difficult to find affordable, nutritious food, represent a major concern for researchers and others who worry about food security. Lower-income people in rural areas — who may not have a reliable vehicle or the gas money to regularly shop at a Walmart tens or hundreds of miles from home — are particularly vulnerable to obesity and diabetes caused by poor diets.
Data from the United States Department of Agriculture, derived from the 2010 Census, indicate that more than 20,800 low-income Montanans live at least 20 miles from a supermarket. An estimated 440 of those Montanans live in Carter County.
Ekalaka residents said they relied on small-town neighborliness last winter to cope with the sudden void that the market fire left in local food resources.
Several local businesses ordered extra milk and eggs to sell to customers, and residents leaving for out-of-town shopping trips posted to Facebook, offering to pick up supplies for friends. A county charter bus, usually used to transport non-driving senior citizens to medical appointments in Billings or Spearfish, was pressed into service for grocery runs to Baker.
“We were worried about our shut-ins,” said Tricia Lovec, who manages the county food bank and charter bus service. “Believe me, not having a store was bad.”
“We all just chipped in and did what we could,” Grimes said.
Along with a handful of other residents, Grimes also turned to a meal delivery service, Hello Fresh, which shipped her weekly boxes containing ingredients for a few meals at a time, including better-quality produce than she could find locally.
“It’s really nice to have these beautiful vegetables in the middle of winter out in boondocks Montana,” she said. “It’s just so much easier to have it show up at your door.”
(As of August, Hello Fresh’s website indicated a new customer could order a six-serving delivery to an Ekalaka address for $53.94 plus $6.99 shipping, or $10.15 per serving.)
In February, a new store, Branson Grocery, opened in an old church building on the edge of town, bringing Ekalaka residents a new shopping option.
“The community needs it,” said owner Mark Branson. “It’s definitely a logistics problem being way out here, so far off the beaten path.”
Grimes said she’s also trying to offer more prepared food with fresh ingredients — things like veggie pizzas — at the coffee shop.
But even that can be an uphill fight. Not long after her interview with a reporter wrapped up, she sent a message with a picture of a freshly cut red pepper with a moldy interior.
“Small town produce…,” she wrote. “Just bought 2 days ago.”
This story is published by Montana Free Press as part of the Long Streets Project. This work is supported in part by a grant from the Greater Montana Foundation, which encourages communication on issues, trends, and values of importance to Montanans. Reach Lead Reporter Eric Dietrich at firstname.lastname@example.org.