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Sid Rood, a driver with Peterson Bus Service, helps Scott Edman off the bus Tuesday to go grocery shopping at Jahnke Foods in Spicer. The New London American Legion is paying for a bus to take the town's residents to Spicer each Tuesday and Friday until a grocery opens again in New London. The town's only grocery store, The Big Store, closed last month. Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange

A helping hand

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Scott Edman has a big sweet tooth that needs satisfying and a bird feeder that needs frequent filling. Both tasks require a trip to the grocery store at least one a week.

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Because physical injuries prevent him from driving, getting to a store is difficult.

In the past he could call in an order to New London's grocery store,

The Big Store, and employees would deliver groceries to him.

They even put the groceries away in the cupboard. But when the town's only grocery store closed last month, Edman -- like many other residents in town -- was stuck.

"It hurt me. It hurt a lot of people," said Edman, 62, who lives at Glen Oaks Care Center. "When you don't have a grocery store in town, you don't have a town," he said.

Much of New London's population is elderly and, like Edman, had shopped at the Big Store all their lives.

When the tight economy caused the store to close, residents with limited mobility were in a tailspin.

But Edman is now buying his groceries in neighboring Spicer. He gets there by riding a free, handicapped-accessible bus that's made possible by the New London American Legion.

"It's so handy. You get on the bus and they help you get the food," said Edman, who speculated that the bus driver would probably even cook the food for him if he asked.

Dale Peterson, a member of the Legion who initiated the bus sponsorship, said he wanted to find a way to help New London residents with a basic need -- getting to a store to buy groceries.

Many people relied on the Big Store and don't have transportation to get elsewhere. Peterson's own 93-year-old mother used to ride her electric cart for two blocks from her home to the Big Store. "It's devastating for the town not to have a grocery store," Peterson said.

The Legion pays Peterson Bus Service to pick up New London residents at their homes and take them to Jahnke Foods in Spicer every Tuesday and Friday.

"We're happy to provide the service," said Stephanie Francis, transportation manager at Peterson Bus. The fee they charge the Legion for the bus, which has a wheelchair lift, is enough to "cover our costs," she said.

The bus has made just a handful of trips so far, with one to three people riding each time.

"We want to see people ride it," Peterson said. "It's on a schedule to go."

Edman said more people should be taking advantage of the free service. He's ridden the bus to Spicer three times so far and he plans to go again next week.

Darryl Jahnke, manager of Jahnke Foods, said he welcomes all new customers that the Legion bus is bringing, but said it was not good that the New London grocery store closed. "It's sad to see any store go. It is. It's just sad," Jahnke said.

Peterson said the Legion will continue to pay for the twice-a-week bus trips to Spicer until a grocery store opens again in New London. "New London certainly needs a grocery store," Peterson said.

That sentiment is echoed by Steve Renquist, director of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Authority, who has been talking to a number of different business owners and entrepreneurs who've "shown some interest" in getting a grocery store back in business in New London.

He's also been working with financial institutions to develop an attractive financing package.

There have been plenty of rumors flying around town for weeks about the Big Store reopening, but so there's been nothing confirmed.

The current owner, Brian Hedtke, said Tuesday he's trying to sell the store.

Renquist said he thinks there's a strong enough market in New London to support a grocery store again.

"I honestly believe we have a market, and we're looking for a grocer to step in and take advantage of the business market." But he said something should happen before people's buying habits change permanently.

In the meantime, Renquist said he's "delighted" that the New London Legion is "helping their public out."

If a grocery store does open again in New London, Renquist said he hopes residents "bend over backwards to give it a chance." The inconvenience of not having a grocery store in town may be enough of an incentive for people to patronize the local store when it does reopen, he said.

New London residents who live within a mile of town who want to ride the American Legion-sponsored bus to Jahnke Foods in Spicer can call Peterson Bus Service at 320-354-2414.

Reservations are preferred the day before, but spots can be reserved until 9:30 a.m. Tuesdays and Fridays. The bus will start picking up residents from their homes at 10 a.m.

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Carolyn Lange
A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers county government and regional news with the West Central Tribune.
(320) 894-9750
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