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IIRA Director Chris Merrett, IIRA Faculty Assistant Sean Park and IIRA Professor Emeritus John Gruidl at the Google Impact Challenge People's Choice Award ceremony in Chicago, IL.

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From l-r: Merrett, Western Peace Corps Fellow and political science graduate student Carlos Ortega, Park and Gruidl at the Google Impact Challenge People's Choice Award ceremony in Chicago, IL.

Google Impact Challenge Results

February 15, 2019

MACOMB, IL - - While the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs (IIRA) at Western Illinois University didn’t win the Google Impact Challenge People's Choice Award contest, the winner did have a strong connection to WIU.

After an intense eight days of voting, the IIRA and Mattoon in Motion (MIM) were recently recognized as two of 10 non-profit organizations in the state of Illinois with the most innovative projects in creating economic opportunity. More than 170 proposals were submitted.

MIM, winner of the Google Impact Challenge People's Choice Award and $250,000, was created by the IIRA's MAPPING the Future of Your Community program, and a Western Peace Corps Fellow and political science graduate student Carlos Ortega helped write the Google proposal for MIM.

As for the IIRA, being named a Google Impact Challenge recipient has brought more recognition to the IIRA and the work it does for rural Illinois.

The winning project from IIRA assists small towns in opening grocery stores so that residents gain access to fresh produce and meats. As one of the Google winners, the IIRA initially received $75,000 and training from the Google team to jumpstart its ideas.

"We sincerely thank our faculty, staff, students, alumni, friends and community members for supporting Western Illinois University and the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs," said WIU President Jack Thomas. "The IIRA at WIU provides our state and our rural communities with invaluable assistance."

According to IIRA Director Chris Merrett, the initial $75,000 seed money received from the Google Impact Challenge will allow the IIRA to continue working to assist rural Illinois towns without grocery stores to gain greater access to fresh food, as well as provide a market for locally produced goods.

"This project creates community-owned grocery stores, which provide employment opportunities and economic opportunities for local producers, in places that are referred to as 'rural food deserts,'" Merrett explained. "We are most grateful to Google for selecting the IIRA at WIU as one of the 10 Google Impact Challenge winners this year, and for the many people who took the time to vote for our project."

The IIRA program, "From Seed to Shelf," follows a cooperative model that allows for faster start-up, smaller local investments and community engagement. The Winchester, Illinois store, Great Scott! Community Market, is the IIRA's community-owned store prototype. It currently has one full-time employee and four part-time employees.

The community grocery store project is overseen by Merrett, Sean Park, IIRA faculty assistant, who oversees the IIRA's Value Added Sustainable Development Center, and John Gruidl, IIRA professor emeritus, who returned to work for the project. Park also owned and managed a grocery store in a small town for 10 years, and Gruidl has extensive experience in entrepreneurship in rural regions.

For more information on the IIRA and the Value Added Sustainable Development program, visit, or email

Posted By: WIU News, University Relations
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