By Ryan Schuessler
Roger Chilen remembers what Brewster was like before the town largely became a collection of vacant storefronts and crumbling houses.
There were businesses and families and crowded town barbecues in front of the bar. For residents, it was a good life. But when he returned to Brewster in 2000 after living in Denver, something was different in this hamlet in the Nebraska Sandhills, now home to just 12 people.
Spencer’s Market, Brewster’s only grocery store, had closed. Nobody left in town can quite remember when — sometime in the 1970s or ’80s. The building was turned into a saloon, which soon shut its doors as well.
“That was a real loss when they went out,” Chilen said. “You adapt. You have to.”
These days, he and his wife have a garden where they grow food in the summer. They can and pickle produce for the winter, and she bakes bread. All the grocery stores in Blaine County had closed by the mid-1990s, locals say. Now the closest grocery store to Brewster is more than 40 miles away.
As the populations of places like Brewster and nearby Dunning dwindle and rural grocery stores close, vast stretches of rural America are becoming food deserts, defined in a rural context as living more than 10 miles from a grocery store. By one estimate from the Missouri-bas