Small grocery stores struggle, but food deserts are rare in McHenry County
Angelo Ingrao knows the struggle of operating a small grocery store.
Ingrao, 75, is the owner of Angelo's Fresh Market in McHenry. He's usually at the store at 4400 W. Elm St. by 4 a.m. seven days a week.
"It is definitely challenging, putting it mildly. The lack of help is the main thing now. It seems like the workforce is staying home," Ingrao said.
This year, McHenry County shoppers saw the closure of Wonder Foods in Wonder Lake. Island Foods in Island Lake announced it was closing last summer. But in August, it announced it would stay open as a possible purchase is negotiated.
For the Northern Illinois Food Bank, smaller stores closing does not necessarily create food deserts in the county, said Scott Jewitt, the agency's area leader for McHenry and Lake counties.
"We may see increases in need, but we have seen increases in need in the last year anyway," Jewitt said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as "a low-income tract where a substantial number or substantial share of residents does not have easy access to a supermarket or large grocery store."
There are areas of the county that could be considered a food desert, Jewitt said, including Hebron and spots in Woodstock and Harvard.
But for towns such as Hebron, "I almost need a car no matter where I go," which makes it not fit the food desert definition, Jewitt said.
There is not a one-to-one impact for a food pantry when small stores close, he said, but there "may be a reduction in supply" to food banks if those stores were donors.
The closure of small grocery stores has been going on for a while, with many factors contributing, said Rob Karr, president of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association.
"What can't be lost in this is [grocers] have the tightest [margins] of all marketing businesses. There is not a lot of room for error," Karr said.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the grocery business has been extraordinarily difficult between rising costs and finding labor, he said.
Then, there comes the age of some independent grocery owners.
"There is aging-out going on. There are people who are in their mid-to-late 60s whose kids don't want to take over the business. They have to find a buyer or close," Karr said.
Just that day, he had spoken to an independent grocer in his 70s who was unloading a truck of turkeys because he was unable to find help, Karr said.
That grocer was Ingrao.
He has operated the McHenry store for 18 years and is not involved with the Angelo's Foods in Richmond or Johnsburg.
He was not unloading the turkeys completely by himself "but you have to help out and do what it takes," Ingrao said.
Ingrao said he has been working in grocery stores since he was 15.
"I think everything has changed for me," Ingrao said.
He said he feels fortunate that his clientele in McHenry is largely an older community who is not shopping online.
"They like to walk in and see the product, produce, deli, deli meat, perishables. The older generation wants to see it" before they make a purchase, Ingrao said.
Some smaller groceries have found their niche, and that helps them stay open, Karr said.
But inflation is hurting them as much as consumers, Karr said.
For example, a chain with 10 locations has the ability to help "smooth out some of the costs," he said, whereas "with one location, you really don't."
Ingrao has seen those challenges.
"The cost of product, everything is higher, and the cost of operating is higher, the cost of electric is higher, the cost of gas is higher," he said.
He's also struggling to get product from the warehouse. It isn't that Ingrao isn't ordering the products his shoppers want, but that the warehouse doesn't have them.
"These are epic times," he said. "All of the products are not available. The warehouse doesn't have the product, and the manufacturer isn't producing."
Chain stores have the same problems, Ingrao said, noting that "if they don't have it, it is just not available."
It's the availability of food that Jewitt said he is concerned about.
The concept of food deserts "can be fuzzy," he said. "It depends on mobility and access to food. If you don't have transportation, you need to live practically next door" to a store.
"When that is gone, you are stuck," Jewitt said.
From August 2021 to August 2022, the food bank has seen a 50% increase in the number of McHenry County residents seeking help. That has less to do with smaller stores closing than Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits running out and ongoing inflation, Jewitt said.
The lack of grocery stores affects the community, but it hits differently in suburban and rural areas, where access to a car is more common. Urban areas with a denser population that relies on walking to their grocery are hit harder when stores close, Jewitt said.
"There may be access to a grocery store, but that doesn't mean people can afford it," he said. "They are struggling."