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This Steubenville store connects its farmers to its community – a model that has federal backing

Garlic sits in a bin next to bins of bread and other produce. In the background, a man stands at a the Grocery Box counter in Steubenville.
Kendall Crawford
Ohio Newsroom
Gregory Demary opened up the Grocery Box in Steubenville to meet a need. It's being held as an example of how to create a more local food system.

On a sunny Wednesday in Steubenville, a family of four roams the small aisles of a downtown grocery store. Kids zip past the mounds of produce, paper bags of flour and jars of spices to check off their shopping list. They grab blueberries and leafy greens and stop to smell the fresh bread on the shelf.

While the family errand may seem like a typical weekly shop at a Giant Eagle or a Kroger, something sets this store apart: the majority of the products here are locally grown and sourced.

“The money is helping our economy rather than leaving the area and going somewhere else,” said Gregory Demary, founder of the Steubenville Grocery Box.

Gregory Demary, a man in a collared shirt and glasses, smiles at the counter of the Grocery Box
Kendall Crawford
Ohio Newsroom
Demary believes food access is a vital part in reviving downtown Steubenville.

There are more than 70,000 farms scattered across Ohio. But a lot of the corn, soybeans and wheat grown here doesn’t stay within the community where it's farmed, or even within the state. It makes the long journey across the country and overseas.

A recent influx of federal funding hopes to shorten its route – and keep the economic and nutritional benefits inside local communities. The USDA is distributing more than $40 million to create an Appalachian Regional Food Business Center that can help support businesses like the Steubenville Grocery Box.

Filling a void

Demary said he opened the Steubenville store to meet a need. There weren’t any fresh food offerings in the city’s downtown. Prior to its recent grand opening, you needed transportation to get produce: it’s a couple of miles to the nearest supermarket.

The city’s center is what the USDA considers a food desert.

It's an area that has kind of been forgotten about and really abandoned for decades,” Demary said. “This isn’t a place that someone’s going to come in and create jobs and save us, but it’s somewhere where we can make a real difference ourselves.”

A chalk sign reads "Steubenville Grocery Box" on the eastern Ohio town's main street.
Kendall Crawford
Ohio Newsroom
The Steubenville Grocery Box provides fresh farm food in an area that once was a food desert.

That mission keeps Demary going, despite the struggles. He said profits are slim to none and he knows his lone storefront is not a complete solution.

“How our economy is set up, there’s going to be a need for Kroger for a long time. But, we'd love to see more business being directed to small businesses, to farmers and families who live here,” he said.

A regional food system

Demary believes that connecting consumers to food grown close to their communities can make a difference.

Tom Redfern, the director of sustainable agriculture at the nonprofit Rural Action, agrees. He said he wants more Ohio communities to adopt Demary’s model. Redfern said locally-sourced food is not only often more nutritious, it’s more reliable. And the pandemic’s supply chain woes highlighted the flaws in relying on farflung producers.

“How do we reshape the food system, regionally?” Redfern said.

That’s where the Appalachian Regional Food Business Center will come in. It will invest in supporting regional and local supply chains in Ohio and six of its neighboring states. It’s one of 12 centers across the U.S. that will aim to bridge the gap between farmer and foodie.

Lilian Brislen, with the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, summed up its mission:

“Really growing out the middle of these regional food economies to help farmers and food businesses do more business, which brings greater food access and more vibrant food economies for our regions.”

A black chalkboard reads "Fresh Local Greens!" and lists prices of spinach, lettuce, arugula and kale at the Steubenville Grocery Box.
Kendall Crawford
Ohio Newsroom
Most of the items that Demary puts in his store can be traced back to local farmers.

And it comes at a crucial time: A recent survey showed that nearly half of local grocers in rural Ohio were concerned about their ability to remain afloat in five years.

Through the program, Rural Action will dole out the grants to businesses like the Steubenville Grocery Box to help them expand capacity, provide technical assistance and connect them with opportunities across the Appalachian region.

It's making a more resilient food system where the economic impact of the food dollars will stay closer to home,” Redfern said.

Connecting the community

Redfern said it won’t just help consumers. The investments will also aid farmers, like Megan Krivoniak, one of the small eastern Ohio’s producers that supplies the Grocery Box.

On her farm in Bloomingdale, she does a bit of everything: raises livestock, grows produce, bakes bread. But, prior to the Steubenville Grocery Box’s opening, she said selling her inventory locally was difficult, especially with four kids in tow.

“Putting everyone and everything into my truck and going to the farmer's market, setting up,” she said. “And there's no guarantee that people are going to come by, especially if it's raining.”

Now, the Steubenville Grocery Box gives her a more consistent option. She no longer has to spend so much of her time considering how and when to market her food. And she’s proud to play a small part in giving more choices for the community she serves.

She said that’s why she grows in the first place: it started as a way just to feed her family. Now, she hopes to see that same self-reliance within her community.

“It’s not just gas station food. It’s coming from their neighbor and benefiting their town directly, kind of keeping that circle as small as possible,” Krivoniak said.

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.