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Keeping the shelves stocked

It's a sad state of affairs.

Rural America is largely responsible for a safe, wholesome and plentiful food supply for our country and many others. Yet, the people who feed, fuel and clothe the rest of us often live in what sociologists call "food deserts."

David Procter explained a food desert is defined as an area where most of the citizens live 10 miles or more from a grocery store. Procter is the director of the Center for Engagement and Community Development, based at Kansas State University. He and his staff are working to find ways to help rural communities survive, and one way is to find solutions to the food desert conundrum.

A partner in survival

The center is a joint creation of the administration at K-State and K-State Research and Extension to be a community partner in addressing many issues that affect rural economies, he explained.

"The reason we were created was that as a land grant institution, K-State had always done outreach, but we wanted to energize the mission and go beyond the traditional Extension mission," Procter said. The center connects K-State expertise, faculty members and students with those needs and goals of rural communities. Some of its partners include: The Kansas Sampler Foundation; the Huck Boyd Institute for Rural Development; U.S. Department of Agriculture; the Kansas Small Business Development Center; and the Kansas Department of Commerce. On-campus partners include the departments of agricultural economics, human nutrition and marketing.

"So, say a community is looking to start a rural grocery store, and they're interested in financial planning," Procter said. The center then looks at the resources of K-State and finds that the Masters in Business Administration program has a practicum class where students can help the local citizens draft financial plans. Or, he added, maybe a downtown organization wants to redesign their town square, the center can connect them to a landscape architecture class that needs practice.

This approach also works in answering the issue of food deserts in Kansas.

The word on Main Street

"About 40 percent of counties in Kansas can be classified as food deserts," Procter said. "In 2006, almost immediately after we began, we got phone calls, e-mails and letters from communities and non-profits saying that we needed to do something about this rural grocery issue. They wrote that they had stores closing right and left and they needed someone to help them out."

The center, therefore, began the Kansas State University Rural Grocery Store Initiative to address the issue.

Procter said there are three chief reasons for the troubles of small town grocery stores. "First, there are more of what I call grocery superstores being built in larger communities," he said. "So, if you live in a little town, say 15 miles outside of Hays (Kan.), it's nothing for you to hop into a car and go to town.

"Second would be the declining population in rural America," he continued. "Populations are aging and kids are going to school and moving away." The third reason, and most troubling for small groceries, would be the shift in the manner food is delivered to stores.

"National food distributors require groceries to buy pretty large amounts of food for their distribution trucks to even stop in town--about $10,000 worth of food per week," Procter said. "If you live in a little town, like Fowler (Kan.), it's almost impossible for them to get $10,000 worth of groceries sold per week and so the distribution truck won't stop; and, if there is no food delivered to the store, pretty soon it has to close."

The initiative's goals are simple. "We're looking for new models of operation and business that could help keep these stores surviving," Procter said. That new operational model may mean a community pools its resources to buy and operate its own store. Or, an existing grocery may choose to change its business hours of operation to be more economical and to reach more of its customer base.

The center held a Grocery Summit in 2008, bringing together small town grocery owners with distributors and other interested parties, Procter said. "Out of that summit, we found a couple of regional food distributors, but they're located in the southeast part of the state," he said. "But we also now have some grocery stores that have changed their practices, such as opening at more appropriate times, or offering different services based on what they heard from us at the summit." The center plans to host another summit in June 2010 in Manhattan, to further help small grocers find solutions.

Meeting the need

Since the inception of the Rural Grocery Store Initiative, stores are starting to find creative solutions to the challenges they face.

"Some have started pooling their resources," Procter said. "For example, one of the stores we've worked with, in Gove, has started partnering with six other stores to get to that $10,000 per week minimum order. Now the distribution truck drops food off in Gove and then Gove takes it and distributes it to the six stores. That's going on in a lot of places in Kansas."

There's still a need for better food distribution, though. And so the center's working to create a regional food distribution system. "That way, instead of little grocery stores figuring out ways to create their own regional food distribution system, we have some regional distributors that can service the middleman between the national chains and the little guys."

The center has a website specifically designed to reach small town grocers, at www.ruralgrocery.org. The site has a section identifying five challenges rural grocery stores face:

--Competition with chain groceries;

--The high costs of energy;

--Meeting minimum buying requirements;

--Dealing with labor issues;

--And dealing with community support.

In each section relating to a specific challenge, there are best practices that grocers can use to help their own businesses thrive. "There's no silver bullet or magic that will all of a sudden change this," Procter said. "We hope that we can help sustain stores and help slow the decline of stores in rural communities."

A community's hub

Procter said the work the center is doing in this initiative is vital to the health of small communities across the state.

"Rural grocery stores are what I call part of the critical infrastructure of small towns," he said. "So, if a grocery store goes, just like if the town loses its Post Office or churches, it's sort of one of the last nails in the coffin for the town."

The people truly hurt by this are the elderly, poor and very young, Procter added. "They don't have transportation that will get them to the big superstores or it's unreliable or they have to depend on someone else to drive them," he said. "One reason we must keep these small grocery stores open is to protect the nutritional health of all of rural Kansans, but especially the elderly, the poor and the young."

The initiative is also focused on educating community members about the critical need for their local store. "Lots and lots of people who live in small towns will drive right past their store and on to the big box grocer in a town 20 miles away," Procter said. "We believe we need an educational effort that explains to people if their store closes there are negative consequences. Property values go down, the nutritional health of the community declines, and the economic base of the city is hurt because of a loss of taxes and labor."

For the people of rural America who live in these food deserts, the work of the Center for Engagement and Community Development, and its Rural Grocery Store Initiative, are critical to answering the food desert dilemma.

"What's so bad about a small grocery store closing?" Procter asked. "You might as well ask, 'what's so bad about your small town just going away?' There aren't too many out there who believe that's a good thing."

The Center for Engagement and Community Development can be reached by phone at 785-532-6868, or by visiting its website at www.k-state.edu/cecd/. Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached by phone at 620-227-1807, or by e-mail at jlatzke@hpj.com.



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