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This editorial appeared in the Charleston Gazette-Mail on March 17:

It’s rare to see a Walmart go out of business. The stores change their locations in the same communities all the time — usually when locally granted tax breaks are about to expire. A branch of the retail behemoth actually shutting down, though, is almost unheard of.

Yet, that’s what happened in McDowell County in 2016, when the Walmart near Kimball closed its doors for good.

When something like that occurs, it’s devastating for a community on multiple fronts, especially rural ones, like those in McDowell County. There’s the loss of local jobs to consider. Like it or not, Walmart is one of the largest employers in the state.

Of course, with lower prices and so much under one roof, Walmart’s business model long ago began eliminating locally owned outfits looking to compete in small towns across the country. When the Walmart goes under, there’s typically nothing left close by for important goods, especially when it comes to necessities like groceries.

There are several places in West Virginia that are classified as “food deserts” — communities with no nearby places to obtain fresh meat, produce and other staples required for basic nourishment. This leads to a decline in health, as residents rely more on fast food or heavily processed junk foods available at local convenience marts or dollar stores. And so, health and quality of life — two categories in which West Virginia typically ranks near the bottom in the country — take another hit.

For the most part, the plight of these communities goes perhaps not unacknowledged but largely unchanged. That’s why local action to address these problems is so important.

A good example is Economic Development Greater East, a nonprofit in McDowell County gearing up to open a community grocery store in Kimball. The group also works to establish and explore local agricultural projects. The two aims merge well together, when considering how important a local food supply can be.

A community grocery store selling items produced by local farmers and artisans lifts all boats. It also helps to get local residents interested in agriculture, bolstering the amount of food or other goods available while perhaps putting some extra money in their pockets.

It’s a fledgling effort, but McDowell County is one of the poorest communities with one of the lowest life expectancies, not just in West Virginia, but the entire country. If no one is going to come to them, local initiatives like the Mountain Farm Community Grocery are a necessary step forward. And any step forward is a sign of hope and the potential for a better tomorrow in a place so many have simply forgotten.

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