KIMBALL — Like farmers trying to bring water to a desert, a non-profit organization is working to bring readily-available groceries to an area that became a food desert several years ago when a large retailer closed its doors.

The Walmart in Kimball closed in January 2016, taking away jobs as well as a place where residents could buy groceries. While there are other grocery stores in McDowell County, they are not always convenient for everybody in the area. Some residents now live as far as 30 to 40 miles from a grocery store. An organization called Economic Development Greater East (EDGE) is now working to fill this gap by opening a community grocery store in Kimball

“We’ve been working for five years,” said Crystal Cook Marshall, a member of EDGE. “We’re all volunteer, and what we have done is identify lots of needs in McDowell County, and we are trying to do them all at once. So in the western side of McDowell, we have agricultural training going; and then in Kimball, we own a building outright in Kimball. We do have some funding for that from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture).

The store, called the Mountain Farm Community Grocery, will be a nonprofit grocery. The goal is to reinvest its profits in other EDGE community projects, Cook Marshall said.

“Certainly, the Walmart’s closing did many things,” she said “It increased hunger, increased unemployment and made McDowell County a food desert; which means you can’t buy most necessities conveniently. Our goal is not to compete with any groceries that are there. We’re looking to provide other kinds of foods and opportunities that aren’t on sale at local groceries.”

Mountain Farm Community Grocery’s merchandise will feature “hurricane foods,” Cook Marshall said. These foodstuffs include bread, milk, eggs, flour, beans and other staples that people rush to buy when blizzards and other major weather events have been forecasted. 

“And we’ll also work with some local producers on fresh foods: local vegetables, fruits and meats. We’re a different animal. We’re not looking to put anybody out of business,” she said.

The future store’s location is off Coal Heritage Road in Kimball. The nonprofit is now working to raise the $20,000 needed to purchase adjoining space in the building and begin renovations. The hope is to open the new grocery store by the fall of this year. A banner marks the future store’s location.

“There is a potential for generated income to be reinvested,” she said, adding that EDGE has Phase II and Phase III plans. 

These plans include entrepreneurial, agricultural, remote work and at-large work training. Another goal of addressing the food desert is give local people a reason not to relocate. Losing population is one of the county’s biggest problems, Cook Marshall said.

“With that comes the closing of the Walmart, the closing of schools. You become noncompetitive for federal grants because you don’t have enough people. You can’t compete with urban areas that have more people,” she stated. “That happens all the time in West Virginia.”

EDGE has worked out the grocery store’s feasibility and believes that it is strong,” she said. The store could cater to the “high-income tourist market as well as local residents. The tourists are looking for ready-to-eat food and other shoppers are looking for “ready to cook.”

The nonprofit is also looking for producers of agricultural goods and value-added products such as salsa and natural cosmetics. The plan is to sell local products whenever possible, then reach out to regional producers and groups that are under-represented in agriculture. 

“So we are searching for products and welcome contact, and we welcome more volunteers and people to get involved,” Cook Marshall said.

Economic Development Greater East can be contacted on its Facebook page and is now on Twitter, she said. EDGE can also be reached by email on econdevgreatereas@gmail.com

— Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline.com

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