Mascoma Valley Grocer Still Goal
Enfield — Fresh food advocates and town officials in the Mascoma Valley are hoping a new feasibility study will help attract a food cooperative or grocery store to the Route 4 corridor.
Market research now indicates there’s demand in the area for a small grocery store in either downtown Enfield or Canaan but it’s unlikely a large store would be able to compete with those in Claremont and Lebanon, said Stuart Arnett, a consultant with the Better Future Alliance, a Concord-based consulting firm.
A report by Arnett and his colleagues at the alliance will be discussed at a public hearing on Dec. 7 in Enfield.
By demonstrating that there is demand for fresh food and affordable options, and by indicating what grant funding could help, Arnett said a nonprofit or commercial store could be convinced to build in the area.
Enfield Town Planner Scott Osgood said the idea of bringing more food options to the Mascoma Valley isn’t new. In 2013, 80 people gathered for a meeting over establishing a food cooperative. It seemed unlikely that the Co-op Food Stores in Lebanon and Hanover would expand to the region, so he said a group of people formed the Mascoma Food Co-op with the ambition of finding a way to get more fresh food at good prices and with easier accessibility to the area.
Accessing healthy food options in the area is difficult, according to Nate Miller, executive director of the Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission.
Between 2011 and 2013, volunteers working with Miller’s organization visited each of the commission’s 27 communities.
They found that 15 towns, more than 50 percent, had no access to a grocery store. Eighteen, or 67 percent, had at least one convenience store, and four had no food stores at all.
The volunteers also found that 15.2 percent of people have access to food by walking and 44 percent of the region’s population is within a five-minute bicycle ride to a grocery or convenience store, according to a report summarizing their work.
“When considering the practicality of access it is important to note that, while most people are able to walk .25 miles, not all people are able, nor do all people own a bicycle,” the report read.
In Enfield, there’s only about four or five locations where people can purchase food, Miller said, including George’s AG SuperValue on Main Street.
But most of the options are convenience stores, Miller said.
“What they really struggle with is the availability of healthy fruit and vegetables,” he said.
That was the biggest challenge Miller said was facing many towns, including Canaan.
Although the convenience stores offer bread, some meat, canned foods and canned beverages, people in town were hard pressed to find vegetables. He said that’s been partly alleviated by the opening of a farmstand on Route 4 by Blue Ox Farm in Enfield.
“It’s no longer just a farmers market that’s the only option in town,” he said. But local agriculture is still limited by the seasons.
“It just showed how troubling the place is,” Osgood said of Miller’s work. “It’s a big problem and it’s a big problem that needs some real things to fix it.”
Osgood and his group were joined by representatives from Caanan, Orange, Grafton and Dorchester.
With Enfield Town Manager Steve Schneider, they applied for a $12,000 federal community development block grant.
Their application was approved and Arnett said he went to work with Mascoma Food Co-op’s committee to determine which is most important to the community — more food and grocery options, supporting local agriculture or providing nutritious food for families.
He said all three are interconnected but don’t always coincide.
For instance, developers of large food stores with more food options tend to look at traffic data, and tend to place stores where there is a high volume of traffic. Such a development, though, could still leave elderly people and those who can’t drive in rural areas stuck in a so-called “food desert.”
The committee chose the third option, focusing on a smaller store providing nutritious food, and Arnett said his work points to a demand for a small grocery store that could be supported in either Enfield, with a population of almost 4,600, or Canaan, population 3,900.
“Enfield is probably stronger because traffic flow is higher,” he said.
At the upcoming public hearing, Arnett plans to reveal models for both a small facility in Enfield and possible plans for reviving the Log Cabin General Store, on Depot Street in Canaan.
Regardless of what’s proposed, he said it will still take an interested company or developer to make the jump from planning to an actual business.
“It’s really meant to be a study to spur interest,” Arnett said. “We do not have any developer in mind.”
The Mascoma Food Co-op organizers have hoped that the Hanover-based Co-op Food Stores might respond to community calls for a store.
Co-op Food Stores operates locations in Lebanon, Hanover and White River Junction.
While it’s exciting that Mascoma communities are showing interest, the Co-op is focused on managing its current stores, spokesman Allan Reetz said in an email Tuesday.
“Such support for co-op solutions mirrors what we’ve seen elsewhere in New Hampshire and around the country,” Reetz said. “At present, we are focused on managing our three grocery stores, community market and service center.”
A public hearing on the study will be held at 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 7 at the Enfield Public Works Facility at 74 Lockehaven Road.
Tim Camerato can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3223.