Health of rural communities threatened by loss of grocery stores

K-State center at the heart of efforts to reverse the trend of vanishing rural grocers

0 | Nutrition, Rural Health

Tim White owns the Thriftway grocery store in Hiawatha, a town of about 3,200 people located 75 miles north of Topeka. He bought it with a couple of partners in 2009 — every year since they’ve lost money. White and his partners are "grasping at straws" for ways to keep people coming to the store, such as hosting a weekly farmers' market and trying to form a food hub to supply local restaurants and schools.

Tim White owns the Thriftway grocery store in Hiawatha, a town of about 3,200 people located 75 miles north of Topeka. He bought it with a couple of partners in 2009 — every year since they’ve lost money. White and his partners are "grasping at straws" for ways to keep people coming to the store, such as hosting a weekly farmers' market and trying to form a food hub to supply local restaurants and schools.

— Lack of access to nutritious food is a growing health problem in America.

And it’s not just a concern in so-called urban food deserts. It’s an issue of increasing urgency in rural communities here in the heart of America’s breadbasket.

“The lack of access to grocery stores in many rural areas is striking,” researcher Jon Bailey wrote in a 2010 report published by the nonprofit Center for Rural Affairs.

More than 400 counties in the United States, including many in Kansas, are classified as “food deserts,” meaning that all residents live more than 10 miles away — often much farther — from a full-service grocery store.

“The real life consequences of living in a ‘food desert’ are less access to a full range of healthy foods, less healthy eating and less healthy people,” Bailey wrote. “The long-term consequences of less healthy individuals, families and communities are, of course, substantial.”

The vanishing rural grocery store has become a particular concern for David Procter, director of the Center for Engagement and Community Development at Kansas State University.

“There are 675 incorporated towns and cities in Kansas and we know that over half of those towns don’t have one grocery store in them,” Procter said in a 2011 interview with Harvest Public Media.

To reverse a trend that he believes is threatening the health of Kansans and the viability of dozens of small communities, Procter started the Rural Grocery Initiative. Its mission is to help small-town grocers survive. Faculty and students at the center do that by serving as business consultants to store owners and by working to convince residents to shop locally and sometimes to become investors in a store.

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The Thriftway grocery store in Hiawatha.

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“Increasingly people believe that having access to healthy food is a public good,” he said. “It’s like having good roads. It’s like having good schools.”

Hanging on in Hiawatha

Tim White owns the Thriftway grocery store in Hiawatha, a town of about 3,200 people located 75 miles north of Topeka. He bought it with a couple of partners in 2009 — every year since they’ve lost money.

High utility bills, the result of old and inefficient refrigeration units are killing them. So is the competition from a Walmart superstore on the other side of town. White’s describing his challenges to attendees at a recent built environment conference in Topeka, where much of the talk is about sustainability, community gardens and how to increase access to healthy foods. He is the star of a breakout session on rural grocery stores because of a seemingly counterintuitive decision he made this spring to host a new farmers’ market in his parking lot.

When he was approached about the idea, he said he remembers thinking: “Why would I do that? It is direct competition and on my turf.”

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Tim White, owner of the Thriftway grocery store in Hiawatha.

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But he said a new business plan that a K-State team helped develop convinced him that he had to consider every business opportunity that separated him from his corporate competitor — particularly by reinforcing his “local” brand.

“It was just out of sheer having to find something,” he said. “We were grasping at straws and this opportunity presented itself.”

Looking back, White said, “It has turned out to be a great opportunity for our store. Our parking lot fills up — and it hasn’t been full since 2006 when Walmart built their superstore.”

Many of those who come to buy fresh produce at the farmers’ market on Tuesday evenings also take the opportunity to pick up a few things from the store, White said. He also does a good business the next day selling produce in the store that is not sold at the market.

“I’m happy to buy whatever is left over and that has been a great success,” he said.

Food hub in the works

Tuesday evening conversations with the farmers who set up stands in his parking lot has given White the idea of creating a food hub out of his store. He would help to store and distribute fresh produce to institutional buyers in the area.

“Our idea is to take those local producers and try to get them to increase their production to the point where we can basically service restaurants, our local hospital, our local schools with healthy, fresh-grown food,” White said. “This is another one of those straws that we’re grasping at and we hope that it works.”

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A bulletin board with 'thank you' notes to the Thriftway grocery store in Hiawatha.

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If it does work, White and his business partners won’t be the only ones to benefit. Food hubs create new markets for local farmers and help them diversify their planting.

“They (farmers) are getting excited about growing something other than wheat or corn,” White said.

Pausing to reflect on the mix of opportunities and challenges he faces, White concludes his break-out-session presentation on a hopeful note: “You know, grocery owners can play an awesome role in their communities.”



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