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Oriental residents adjust to new normal for grocery, pharmacy needs

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News from the waterfront town of Oriental made national headlines when a Walmart Express closed its doors last week.  Reports focused on how the closure of chain stores can impact the economy of small towns.  The store closing came months after the longtime local grocer “Town n’ Country” was shuttered.  That leaves the town of 900 without a local grocery store or pharmacy. 

People in the rural Pamlico County town of Oriental must drive 15 miles to Grantsboro to get to the nearest shopping center.  For most, it’s an inconvenience.   But for those who don’t have transportation, the change is a real burden.  The challenge is being met through the Oriental Oriental Food Initiative, in which Doug Sligh is a member.

“Some of my neighbors have depended on Walmart and before that the Town n’ Country for all of their grocery shopping because of their limited transportation.  So being able to walk to the store, or ride a bicycle to the store is an essential part of their existence.”

Last Wednesday, in an effort to solve this mutual problem, residents gathered at The Old Theater, less than a mile from the now-vacant Walmart Express.  

“I was afraid it might get into a oh, how bad Walmart is or oh how bad our town commission is because they didn’t fight Walmart harder.  There was none of that, people are just looking to what can we do to solve this problem, and how can we help solve this problem.”

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After more than 40 years, the Town n' Country closed its doors for good October 29th.

One of the outcomes of the meeting was the creation of a free transportation service for people who don’t have a vehicle.  On Monday, it was announced that rides to the Bayboro/Grantsboro area will be provided by about 40 volunteers and Oriental Methodist Church’s Primetime Ministries Transportation Program.  The service has been operational for 12 years but Chairperson Donna Creech says they’re expanding the program in light of these businesses closing. 

“It’s not going to be a lot of people at any time because it’s limited to people who walked  to the grocery store, rode their bicycle or drove their golf carts, or who drive their cars but only in Oriental.  You know, they don’t feel confident driving beyond that because of physical limitations.”

Thursday morning was the first time the ride service was offered.  However, Creech says friends and neighbors helped the seven residents needing rides to get groceries and to pick up prescriptions.  She expects more people will need the ride service as time goes on.

Commissioner Allen Price is helping to organize the weekly trips Thursday mornings at 9:30.  He says they will offer the service as long as people use it.

“We feel another store is coming. It might be two months, it might be four months.  We’re just going to have to play it (by ear).  Now with summer, spring right around the corner, and the festivals and more people coming to town and more boaters, there might be more people that need rides.”

Despite what some national and local news reports may lead you to believe, there is food available in Oriental.   Residents can purchase canned goods, eggs, milk and some essential items at what Price calls the “Oriental mall,” better known as the Dollar General.  There’s also the mini-mart and another local business that sells wine.  However, there is a shortage of fresh fruits and vegetables.  Oriental resident Austin Harrell says he’s had to adjust his eating habits.

“Honestly, I’ve just cut back on a lot of it because I don’t have as much time as I want to drive up the road, you can get canned goods and what not, for the interim.  I guess I’m hoping someone will come back into town and Town n’ County or something like them would open up shop again.”

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Fresh local produce display at the Provision Company

In the sailing capital of North Carolina, you’d expect a marine market.  But now it sells more than boat parts.  In response to fewer food choices, Inland Waterway Provision Company now stocks fresh, local produce.  Manager Pat Stockwell says they started offering seasonal fruits and vegetables when the Town n’ Country closed.  He says the Provision Company, which was built in the 70’s was originally a grocery store.

“It’s not really a grocery store again, but it’s not your typical marine parts store.  You know, get some  charts and oh, by the way pick up some root vegetables on the way out.”

That’s exactly what Eddie Wolmarans was doing Tuesday afternoon.  He’s passing through and spending a few days on his boat in Minnesott Beach.  He’s eyeing the display of sweet potatoes, apples, carrots, onions, potatoes and cabbage.  There’s also a refrigerator with meat from local farms, beef, pork, chicken and lamb and dairy from a creamery in Ayden.  Holding a small bunch of kale and frozen sausage links in his hands, he tells me he was surprised to purchase his dinner at a marine parts store.

"It’s a really great idea, to get all the local things that are in season and know it’s in season, it’s a great plus.  You go into the other stores and they may come from some other country anyway.”

The fresh produce does come at a price.  Locally sourced food is more costly and the selection more limited.  Every Friday, store manager Pat Stockwell picks up produce from four farmers in Blounts Creek, Kinston, and Pollocksville.  It’s about a 200 mile loop.  He says it’s worth the drive because he’s meeting a demand in the community.

“Typically, I run out of fill in the blank commodity.  I’ve had very little spoilage because it’s gone before anything spoils.”

By noon, Stockwell says he’s had more than a half a dozen people walk out of the store with produce.  He credits the Oriental Food Initiative for helping to get the word out.

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“A couple of them will come in to see what’s here and then get on their computer and send out an email blast or something on their facebook page that says oh, they have baby spinach down there now and it’s really good or they have kale.”

The Oriental Food Initiative, a group of about eight residents, has been instrumental in bringing fresh produce to the town, including asking the Provision Company to carry local fruits and vegetables.  The group seeks short term fixes and long term solutions, such as finding a replacement grocery store in the town.  Member of the Initiative Katherine Garcia says the meeting a week and a half ago was a turning point.

“When Billy from Piggly Wiggly spoke, everybody applauded the idea of having somebody local buy the Walmart and that way we could all work together to bring products and produce that the whole community is interested in.  That’s one of the beauties of working with someone local is that the local population can have an input. With Walmart, we really couldn’t have an input with what was in the store.”

150 people turned out for the meeting.  Melinda Penkava was there.  An initiative member, she says the community can learn a lesson from these store closings.

“The Walmart experience has taught the town and the closing of the other grocery store has taught the town that if you want that local business to stay here, you have to shop at it.  He gave examples of the types of organic things he could get so long as people bought it.  That just seems like basic community economics.”

Following the Wednesday meeting, Member Doug Sligh wrote an email to Walmart asking them to sell the vacant building to a local grocer.  The next morning, he received a call.  

“Saying they would give us 24 hours to get local bids in.  So we hustled around, got in touch with Billy Flockhart at Piggly Wiggly and Frank Zeiden at the mini-mart and they both were on top of it.  They both had already done some preliminary work and so they got their offers in.  So that’s what we’re waiting to hear, if one of them has gotten the store.”

According to Towndock.net, when Oriental Town Manager Diane Miller asked Walmart this week when they would have an answer, the response was they “would expect clarity by the end of the month.”  The closure of the Walmart Express and the Town n’ Country was a hard blow to the town.  But the issue has brought the small town closer, with a common cause of bringing back a vital resource to the town.  It will take the same community involvement to keep it in Oriental in the future.

Jared Brumbaugh is the Assistant General Manager for Public Radio East. An Eastern North Carolina native, Jared began his professional public radio career at Public Radio East while he was a student at Craven Community College earning his degree in Electronics Engineering Technology. During his 15+ years at Public Radio East, he has served as an award-winning journalist, producer, and on-air host. When not at the station, Jared enjoys hiking, traveling, and honing his culinary skills.