My friends Dave and Sara Ring own and operate an organic grocery store in my hometown of Muncie, Indiana.
I wrote about them in my book Where Am I Eating?”:
“The Downtown Farm Stand is located in the heart of Muncie. Like our food moving overseas, like farmers moving to the burbs, life in Muncie has moved to McGalliard Road, a long strip of middle America strip malls and every chain restaurant a binge eater could want. The Farm Stand is the only place downtown where Munsonians can buy groceries these days.”
Recently Dave and Sara announced that for a variety of reasons, including declining grocery and deli sales, their store would only be open on Thursdays, as opposed to 6-days per week. And they would close their deli altogether.
I’m sad about it. They made their own bread, roasted meats, and sauces from scratch.
The Downtown Farm Stand deli was one of my favorite things about Muncie. They served the world’s best sandwiches, and while I was there I could pick up some organic, Fair Trade coffee, locally-grown produce, and other groceries. For someone who cared about where my food came from and what it meant for the land and farmers who grew it, Dave and Sara’s store is a trusted filter.
They carried bacon that was the best bacon I’d ever tasted. One day it wasn’t there and I asked Dave about it. Apparently, the farm producing the bacon no longer met the Farm Stand’s standards, so they stopped buying from them.
A lot of stores like the Downtown Farm Stand get into selling vitamins and supplements because the margins are so much higher. But Dave and Sara didn’t want to sell pills; they wanted to sell vitamin-filled and nutrient-rich food.
The fact that an organic, GMO-free grocery located in a struggling post-industrial downtown existed for a single year is a miracle. The Downtown Farm Stand has operated for 16 years, which has required resilience and adaptation. Hopefully these new changes will allow it to continue for many more years to come. They’ve lasted through the Great Recession and now the Great Reset. They’ve been an important part of Muncie’s downtown revitalization.
Every small town used to have at least one grocery store. It was typically named after the family who owned it. The family members worked in the store. Their kids and grandkids went to school with you. You could recommend a product and they’d stock it. In a lesson of “there is always a bigger fish”: regional chains consumed the mom-and-pop stores, then the regional chains were consumed by even larger regional chains, which were consumed by national chains such as Walmart, Target, and Costco. The stores fled urban and rural areas for the suburbs, leaving communities in food deserts with dollar and convenient stores as artificial oases of empty calories.
The Downtown Farm Stand bucked all those trends. Before consumers were supporting organic, the Downtown Farm Stand was selling it. Through the years the demand for organic and healthy food has grown. However, chains that didn’t carry organic food, now do, or through greenwashing using meaningless terms like natural, humanely, locally grown, act like their food is healthier and more environmentally-friendly than it actually is. Now Walmart is probably the largest seller of organic food in our community.
To be clear, I’m entrapped by the chains and their cheaper prices as well. While we do get a produce bin from the Farm Stand delivered every other week, support their latest venture–a music lounge–and regularly ate at their deli, we still spend the majority of our grocery dollars at chains. As Wendell Berry writes, “We’re all complicit in the things we may be trying to oppose. I’m complicit in the things that I’m trying to oppose.”
The Business of Being a Local
There are a lot of large supply chain forces working against a local grocery store like the Downtown Farm Stand, but I don’t want to address the business side of local business, I want to focus on the local side of local business, which is really about the business of being a local.
Unlike the Walton family who owns Walmart or the Meijer family who owns Meijer or the countless shareholders who own Target and Costco, Dave and Sara are a part of the community they serve. That’s supposed to be a good thing. A feather in the cap of locally-owned businesses. How can the Waltons compete with that?
But after living in my community for 15 years, I’ve also seen how this is a bad thing.
Sara and Dave have opinions and thoughts about the direction of our community, as any active community members should.
They fought against schools spraying herbicides on playgrounds.
They fought against the construction of a local hog CAFO.
They fought against a heavy metal recycling facility on the edge of town that would have drastically decreased the quality of our communities’ air.
They spoke out against government corruption before that government corruption had been confirmed by a long-running FBI investigation.
They spoke out against the hundreds of thousands of dollars of government-support that helped bring a major competitor, Meijer-owned Fresh Thyme, to our community.
Dave ran for State Senate and then for County Commissioner.
During each of these fights and campaigns there were local people on the opposite side of the Rings. People who “used to go to the Farm Stand” until they disagreed with Sara and Dave’s opinion, fight, or activism.
I’m as guilty as anyone. I’ve had the words and actions of local business owners rub me the wrong way, and because there are few local options, I chose, perhaps with not enough thought, to instead take my business to the chains.
Maybe being outspoken and involved in so many issues is small business malpractice. Maybe it’s best if the Rings and other local business owners just shut up and sold groceries. Maybe if you run a business you should stay quiet. Be a voiceless, passive member of our community.
The Local Burden
National chains don’t shoulder the local burden. They are nameless and faceless and largely opinionless, which shouldn’t be a benefit. What are Target’s values? What are Walmart’s values? What do they think about our community? Do they even think about our community or are we a line item on some corporate spreadsheet, reduced to a zip code or store number?
Sure, these national and large regional chains execute some corporate-giving initiatives and they pay taxes and employ folks, but are they showing up to City or County Council meetings? Are they helping to shape and direct our community? Going all-in for a school levy? Speaking out against a local injustice?
Dave and Sara stopped offering chicken in the deli because they couldn’t get it from a supplier raising them on pasture. Meanwhile, Meijer, Walmart, and Target sell chickens grown in cages, pumped full of antibiotics and steroids, and processed in factories by workers whose bosses took bets on how many of them would die during the height of the COVID pandemic. National chains sell “grass-fed” beef contributing to deforestation in the Amazon and chocolate produced by enslaved people. They profit from products sold on the shelves in our community, produced in other communities that have been poisoned, polluted, and enslaved.
Yet people say: “But did you read the Op-Ed that Dave wrote? Did you hear him speak out at the meeting?” And then they give their business to the chains.
I’m writing this for my community as much as yours, to remind me as much as you. Whether or not we agree with a small business owner in our community, we should appreciate when they care enough about our community to speak out and get involved. I . . . We should think twice before turning our backs on local businesses and taking our business to voiceless, faceless, impersonal national chains that don’t have opinions, or neighbors, or hands to shake, or ears to listen, or the heart of a Sara and Dave who regularly guide recently-diagnosed cancer patients on their journey to cleaner eating, and who comforted my wife and me when we embarked on a new diet to help our autistic son.
Chains care about business.
Locals care about the business of being a local.
Absolute kudos. Well written piece of truth. Thank you.
Truth. It’s bittersweet that I no longer live in my hometown of Muncie. My first 46 years of life was there and I was raised running around downtown in the 70s and decades following. I’ve seen all the transformations of ups and downs. Sara and Dave are priceless gems of the community. I regret I didn’t support them nearly enough to be considered a customer. Only in my last 5 years have I cared enough about my own health to begin my journey of a healthier lifestyle choices of diet and fitness. I hope the they can resume their passion of providing a rare service more frequently for their benefit and the local community. Thanks to them and you for writing this article.
Great share Kelsey. Awesome to hear from you and what you care about. ( I do too!)
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