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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: Practice small-town values at small-town stores

Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

James Kane and his wife, Bridget Rohner, own and operate a small grocery store and coffee shop in Reardan’s two-blocks-long downtown, across from the U.S. Post Office and down the street from the tavern.

The R-Store stocks essentials for the benefit of seniors and low-income residents who don’t have the cash to keep a large pantry well-stocked or easy transportation to run into the city for groceries.

Like many small towns in Eastern Washington, Reardan is classified as a food desert, a place where it’s 10 miles or more to a full-service grocery.

The R-Store is a small oasis. It’s not big enough to classify as full service, but it’s more than a gas station convenience store. Fresh produce is always on the menu, sometimes locally sourced. Its owners see their mission as a for-profit community service. They also provide space for the We C.A.R.E. Food Bank.

Kane is retired military and Rohner works for Washington State University Extension, which gives them more flexibility than most small grocers to weather the current economic pause. But Kane is still concerned about his customers. When he can’t stock his shelves, some of his clients go without.

When his order arrived on Tuesday, the truck from Harbor Wholesale Foods unloaded $600 worth of tobacco, candy, gum and junk food. Among the items he didn’t get were flour, tuna, egg noodles, lentils, Nalley’s chili, Kleenex, toilet paper and cleaning supplies.

“Not everyone wants a Red Bull and Twinkies,” Kane said.

Because Harbor Wholesale usually services convenience stores, his only options are “convenience-store sizing and convenience-store pricing,” Kane said. He used to stock a large box of baking mix for $3.50, but all that’s available through the Harbor supply chain is a smaller size for the same price.

URM Stores Inc. used to be the primary supplier for the R-Store. According to Rick Jensen, vice president of the cooperative, URM had to make the difficult decision to temporarily transfer servicing small nonmember accounts like the R-Store to Harbor in response to the extraordinary pressure on its own supply chains.

Family Foods in Davenport is a full-service grocery and member of URM.

“We are by no means getting everything we order either,” said Kevin Hansen, owner-operator along with his wife Sherrill.

Yeast is among the items he hasn’t been able to restock.

“In normal times, we have trouble keeping yeast fresh on the shelf,” Hansen said.

He was getting ready on Friday to reach out to Kane about adding small amounts to his larger orders to help supply Reardan customers.

Jensen noted as a cooperative, “Our decisions are not made based on profit, but our duty to effectively manage the demand of the critical food supply to the communities we serve.”

URM buys directly from manufacturers.

“(When) our allocations are cut on the inbound side, we have to cut our allocations on the outbound side,” Jensen said. “It all snowballs.”

Forecast a blizzard and lines predictably appear at the local grocery store. This time the blizzard will last until at least May 4, and it’s hitting the entire country.

“Consumers are actively buying products in excessive amounts, and that is putting a massive strain on the food supply nationwide,” Jensen said.

He expects manufacturers to start cutting the variety of products coming out of their factories in their response to the pressure.

The extreme hoarding instinct triggered by this novel disaster is as old as the first human who figured out how to store food for the winter. Kane is worried about people seeing empty shelves feeling pressured to buy.

We need to knock it off. Only buy what we need. Leave some for others. Share with neighbors.

We’re also learning about priorities, the hazards of long supply chains and the virtues of being ready for the inevitable storms in life. Consumerism may be taking a hit. And while screens can be a substitute for personal connection, relationships are more precious than ever.

“We talk about the Greatest Generation coming out of the Depression, maybe that’s part of the cycle,” Kane said. “Maybe this is the next Greatest Generation.”

A generation learning the old values of being prepared and looking out for each other.

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