Buche seeks reform to improve health and nutrition, reduce hunger among rural South Dakota residents
More affordable options needed for consumers, more fairness needed in competition, South Dakota grocer says
WASHINGTON, D.C. — There is a health, hunger and nutrition problem among rural South Dakota residents, and R.F. Buche is hoping to impact reforms that make nutritious food options more affordable.
That was the message he was taking to Washington, D.C. earlier this week, where he was taking part in the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health. The conference, the first of its kind held in over 50 years, was held Wednesday, Sept. 28.
“My dad — it was something that was in him and he instilled it in me that it was hard for us to ever see any families go without meals,” Buche, a fourth-generation grocer and president of the G.F. Buche Company, told the Mitchell Republic from Washington. “That has been ingrained in me as a young kid. That’s where my interest level is — making sure people don’t go hungry and giving them affordable choices and access to healthy options.”
Buche oversees operations at multiple grocery, convenience, auto parts and hardware/lumber stores along with fast food restaurants in 19 locations in 11 different communities throughout South Dakota. Grocery stores included among those can be found in Gregory, Mission, Oacoma, Pine Ridge, Sisseton, and Wagner.
Education and accessibility
Rural South Dakotans are at a disadvantage with the choices they have available when it comes to putting food on the table. As much as it is encouraged from a health standpoint, eating nutritiously can tend to be more expensive than eating without an eye toward nutritional value.
Buche is looking to improve food and nutritional education — what constitutes healthy eating and what are ways to stretch their food dollar so they aren’t tempted to spend on items of lesser nutritional value and junk food.
Some programs can help families get more out for their dollar when it comes to healthier choices, such as fruits and vegetables, he said. The Double Up Food Bucks program is one such way, he said. The program helps consumers bring home more healthy food by matching their SNAP, or food stamps, dollars spent on fresh fruits and vegetables.
If a household receives SNAP benefits, it is automatically eligible for Double Up Food Bucks.
“Whether we like it or not, it’s expensive to eat healthy. I’m a big proponent of programs that incentivize healthy eating, like Double Up Food Bucks and things like that,” Buche said.
Another issue facing consumers, especially in rural South Dakota, is the distance some have to travel to get to a grocery store. Economic changes over the years have led to the closure of many rural grocery stores, leaving residents in the middle of a “food desert,” where one must travel 30 miles or more just to buy groceries. In some lower-income areas of the state, not every family owns a car, requiring them to hire rides for their weekly grocery run.
Buche’s company has taken steps to help address access and supply shortages. Store employees sometimes shift in-demand stock from low volume stores to high-volume stores to meet demand, sometimes at a cost of a 1,000-mile round trip. The company is looking into installing food lockers in communities without grocery access. The lockers would be accessible by a code given to the customer upon ordering their groceries, which are then delivered and can be picked up locally.
“I think we can do our best to provide affordable choices in the remote areas we’re in, but there are a lot of areas where there aren’t any options,” Buche said.
Fair trade issues
Under-served areas are often prime market targets for dollar format stores like Dollar General, which don’t specialize in fresh produce and meats the way independent grocers do. The convenience of those stores can make patronizing them more attractive than driving long distances to a grocery store.
“Unfortunately there are very few (independent grocers) that can make those smaller towns work. They are losing (their grocery stores). At the same time we need to do something about the fair trade laws on the books. These dollar formats are ripping apart rural America, specifically small-town South Dakota. And when the grocers go away, there is no more fresh meat or fresh produce, and they miss out,” Buche said.
Buche said independent grocers like himself don’t have access to the same product sizes or price deals that dollar format stores have. Consumers are enticed into those stores because of cheaper prices and their accessibility in rural areas, which in turn makes the healthier options offered by grocers like Buche less appealing.
Alvaro Bedoya, a commissioner with the Federal Trade Commission, who said he was not speaking for the FTC or any of his fellow commissioners, commented on the position Buche and other independent grocers find themselves in when it comes to competing with big box stores. He was a featured speaker earlier this month at the Midwest Forum on Fair Markets conference in Minneapolis, where Buche himself served as a panelist.
Buche’s stores serve an impoverished area of the state, home to a large Native American population. It is even more important to ensure access to quality food in those areas, Buche said. Research from the United States Department of Agriculture in 2014 indicated that Native American populations have about twice the rate of nutrition-related health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity, and that lack of access to nutritious food options could be a contributor to those figures.
“(Buche’s) family has served Indian Country for 117 years, and many of his stores are the only place where locals can get fresh milk or fresh produce, and many are over an hour drive from the nearest big box store. Mr. Buche faces challenges that a lot of his big box competitors do not,” Bedoya said. “Suppliers sell products to the big box stores in sizes and packages that they don’t offer to him. And when he is offered the same product, he can’t get the same price, and it’s not because of quantity.”
Grocers like Buche often use wholesalers to buy product for multiple stores in bulk to ensure the quantity they all need and a reduced price. But big box stores are treated differently, Bedoya said.
“But even then his wholesaler is not given the same price. That price (given to the big box stores) is kept secret,” Bedoya said.
The conference in Washington, D.C. is just the latest outreach Buche has done in his attempts to raise awareness on those issues, including his hope for reform of fair trade laws, which would hopefully level the playing field for grocers like himself against the big box stores. He testified last December in front of the U.S. House Rules Committee on how to address food insecurity issues in the United States in addition to taking part in the Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. conferences.
Updating fair trade laws could help Buche and businessmen like him to offer quality products at competitive prices, which means he could pass those savings on to his customers. But he also hopes more federal funding can be put into educating the public in general about the importance of healthy eating, incentivizing that choice and the ways to make it more affordable for themselves.
“Education is very important. We’ve got to be a big believer in incentivizing healthy eating. It’s really hard to talk a family of four whose budget is stretched to the max and hard to talk them into eating well when they can feed their family with a frozen pizza. We have to find a way to incentivize those choices,” Buche said.