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How to Grocery Shop in Rural Areas

A cutting board of locally sourced foods, featuring honey from the Julian Cider Mill.
This photo is copyright of Jennifer Gutierrez. © 2019 - 2022 by Jennifer Gutierrez.

Grocery shopping in rural areas can be frustrating. The availability and accessibility of traditional grocery stores come down to the zip code you live in.

I live in a town with three small markets. The nearest chain grocery store is 25 miles, and the closest health food store (natural, organic foods, including fresh produce, vitamins, and supplements) is 36 to 56 miles away, depending on your store brand of choice. While I do have to go out of my way to find grocers, I have easier access relative to many rural communities.

Let's discuss how rural residents grocery shop.

Local Stores

Small-town, independently owned grocery stores often get written off and are used mainly for last-minute “emergency” needs. I really encourage you to spend a moment to really investigate what local markets in your community carry. You just might be surprised what you will find when you aren’t in tunnel-vision mode.

From my experience, these mom-and-pop places are usually known for carrying one particular staple category. Maybe it’s keeping fresh, locally grown vegetables or quality meats. It’s totally understandable that you can’t do all your shopping in small grocery stores. But buying a particular item or food category at a local business can really help stimulate your town’s economy.

Pro tip: I like to buy ice cream from the small grocery store in my hometown so it doesn’t melt.

Buy Direct from Producers

Small town economies usually rely heavily on agriculture. You can’t get much fresher food than what you buy from the producer. In California in particular, many laws prevent producers from selling foods to local grocery stores and restaurants (or they make it immensely difficult). Crazy I know. So consumers oftentimes buy these locally produced meat and fresh produce directly from the grower. This is the best way to eat farm-to-table.

Here are a few San Diego Backcountry businesses you can purchase from:

Farmers’ markets or roadside farm stands - Farmers’ markets are a wonderful resource for quality foods. In rural areas, there may not be enough foot traffic for a farmers’ market, but it is very common to see farmers set up roadside stands. This is another great way to get your hands on farm-fresh produce.

Wynola Flats - Wynola Flats is known for its locally sourced, farm-fresh organic food selection. It’s definitely a favorite among locals.

Jack’s Grocery and Deli - At Jack’s, the shelves are always stocked with the best products for both their local and visiting customers. With a great selection of USDA choice grass-fed meats, the freshest produce, and premium organic and gluten-free groceries, you’re sure to find something for your next meal.

Julian Cider Mill - Known for its local section of cider and honey, the Julian Cider Mill also has soups and stews, snacks, and canned goods.

Don's Market - Don’s is the largest grocery store on the hill. They strive to serve locals by offering quality meats, fresh produce, local products, and reasonable prices.

Flying F Ranch - This local ranch sells locally raised Black Angus beef directly to consumers.

Star B Ranch - Over the last 15 years, this family-run business has been working hard to produce the highest quality USDA all-natural buffalo meat. The ranch is home to the state's largest commercial herd. Buffalo meat has a high nutritional value—low in fat, cholesterol, and caloric content.

Carrisito Ranch Cattlemen’s Butcher Box - Carrisito Ranch is as local as it gets. Their beef is all-natural, grass-fed, and USDA-choice meat.

Diamond B Ranch - In Warner Springs, this family-owned ranch offers fresh eggs, beef, and turkey.

Dudley's Bakery - In 1963, Mr. Dudley Pratt started a bakery in the small town of Santa Ysabel. This is a great place to pick up a variety of fresh-baked bread, pastries, and deli items. Their website states, "Quality, taste, uniqueness, and freshness have always been the hallmark of Dudley's Bakery."

California Mountain Bakery - Here you can find a wide variety of unique pie flavors, pastries, and bread. Believe me when I say their freshly baked bread is DELICIOUS! So stop in when you’re in Santa Ysabel—Raul Padilla and his family are always ready to serve you.

Grow It

No seriously. Growing (or raising) your own food is a sure-fire way to ensure you have access to the foods of your preference and standard. There is no need to go full-on homesteader. Keep it simple by starting with one or two items. Start with an herb garden. Have trouble finding fresh lettuce? Grow your own. Get a few hens for eggs. If you're really feeling adventurous, raise a steer, pig, goat, or meat chickens.

Conventional Grocery Stores

When you live a good distance away from the closest supermarket, shopping requires planning and strategy. For me, the nearest major grocery store, Stater Bros., is 25 miles away, so we try to buy enough food to last a few weeks. Shopping at bulk stores like Costco, Sam’s Club, or Smart & Final helps limit grocery trips and allows you to save on food.

We buy a mix of dry foods, canned foods, frozen or freezable items, and only as much fresh produce as we can eat in its lifespan. When meat goes on sale, we buy extra and freeze it for later. Sometimes vegetables in the frozen section aren’t always the best quality. Buying fresh produce and freezing it yourself is a great alternative. Recently, I’ve been buying dried fruits at Costco and love the convenience of it!

Online Grocery Shopping

In recent years, online grocery shopping has really taken off. Same-day grocery delivery isn’t usually offered in remote areas, but you can still use these companies to your advantage. A few companies that ship to my area are Thrive, Walmart, Amazon, and some meal-prep subscription companies.

Honestly, I am just starting to use these services, so I don’t have much experience yet. I will say I love ordering non-perishable foods and household items. It does take a few days to receive my orders, but placing one online order can save me a whole day of driving and gas money. Totally worth it!

A Beginner's Guide to Bulk Grocery Shopping

Bulk shopping is one of the keys to making rural life easier. It dramatically cuts down on time spent driving. The COVID-19 pandemic proved that having an emergency supply of necessities is critical no matter where you live, especially if you are miles from the closest store. Natural disasters, temporary road closures, and living far from stores are just a few reasons why you need to buy extra. Click here to read A Beginner's Guide to Bulk Grocery Shopping.


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