Improving food access requires innovation
Rural grocers and community partners find unique ways to provide for citizens.
Released: June 30, 2016
WICHITA, Kan. – Understanding local food needs, improving access to healthy foods, providing adequate nutrition to a potentially diverse population and keeping customers coming through the doors to maintain funding for the business—rural grocers and the communities they serve face several unique challenges.
It often takes entrepreneurial minds to come together and use innovative tactics to meet the needs of these communities. One of the tactics rural grocers use is working closely with other businesses and community partners.
A community partner in Hoisington, Kansas, for example, is the Clara Barton Hospital. For Brian Dolezal, the hospital’s dietary director, community outreach and education are top priorities.
“We place the cutout of Clara Barton in the local supermarket,” Dolezal said, referring to the community’s Town and Country Supermarket. Together, the hospital and store are collaborating for healthy food access in the town of about 2,700 people.
The cutout of Clara Barton has an important purpose in the store. When it’s time to create the week’s healthy menu for the hospital’s dietary department, Dolezal turns to the local store’s specials for inspiration. He works with others at the hospital to formulate meal recipes and strives to keep meals in the 500-700 calorie range.
They strive to include recipes that are simple for community members to make—recipes that are healthy, quick and do not require many ingredients. The recipes are also balanced using the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate.
The cutout of Clara Barton at the store includes these recipes to make customers’ shopping easier and hopefully gets them focused on healthy eating, Dolezal said. He helps the supermarket by buying fruit on a regular basis to use at the hospital, which provides fruit-infused water to patients on a regular basis.
In addition to working with the grocery store, Dolezal said the hospital is working with local schools, restaurants and other businesses with the formation of a community-wide wellness committee.
“There are different people from the community on the committee to discuss different (food) resources available,” he said. “We are not only addressing issues that affect the schools, but the community as a whole.”
“In a small community, all it takes is some positive change, positive attitudes and getting the ideas out,” he added.
The collaboration in Hoisington is just one example of how grocers and other community members can work together to help one another and the community they serve. Dolezal was one of the speakers at the National Rural Grocery Summit June 6-7 in Wichita, sponsored by the Rural Grocery Initiative at Kansas State University.
Other entrepreneurial minds have enhanced rural food access through the use of virtual food hubs. The High Plains Food Cooperative is a virtual food hub with northwest Kansas ties.
“Food comes into the drop sites, and then trailers pick up the food products and deliver them to the greater Denver area,” said Leon Atwell of Advancing Rural Prosperity Inc. He works closely with the co-op as a producer and consumer member and described the co-op as a “food aggregator” at the National Rural Grocery Summit.
The primary focus of the co-op, he said, is for small- to medium-sized producers to sell their products to local consumers. The producers grow a variety of foods, including poultry, eggs, meat, grains and vegetables. Consumers can visit the co-op website to learn more about the producers, their products and management practices, as well as how to sign up and buy local foods.
One of the co-op’s initial challenges, Atwell said, was the reality of empty backhauling, or fueling an empty trailer on the return trip.
“We hauled our food from western Kansas and western Nebraska to the Denver area, but our trucks and trailers were coming back empty,” he said. “We saw an opportunity to bring locally grown foods in Colorado back to Kansas. The producers in Colorado do a good job with different kinds of produce.”
Atwell shared that the co-op also started a senior bundle program. Through the program, seniors are able to purchase bundles of locally grown foods for $30. Many seniors in the community enjoy the program and the convenience it provides.
The High Plains Food Co-op is also striving to bring fresh, locally grown food products into the rural grocery stores the trucks pass on the way to Denver and is working on projects to expand supply into other grocery stores, Atwell said.
Focus, engage and work through challenges
“My mother told me when I was 4 or 5 years old, I started bringing kids home for a bologna sandwich and hug, so I think it’s important that people have access to food,” said Pam Budenbender, owner of the Onaga Country Market in Onaga, Kansas. Budenbender was a panelist on the “Rural Grocery Best Practices” session at the National Rural Grocery Summit.
Budenbender’s caring nature remains today, as she is constantly updating her store to include different services to meet the needs of people living in her small town. Her quest to bring amenities locally didn’t stop at adding the option to rent videos. When the local florist closed, she bought the floral cooler and now offers floral arrangements in her store.
Another focus she has as a rural grocer is making sure all people have access to quality food. That’s why she provides customers the option to purchase donation bags in the store for the food pantry.
“I think the food pantry gets forgotten,” Budenbender said. “There is a need in the community, and I want to feed people. At the end of the month when people do not have the money to come to the grocery store, I want to make sure the food pantry has food available to them.”
No doubt, community is important to Budenbender and her employees. Her store offers carryout services to customers. The meat department manager frequently spends time on the sales floor visiting with customers and handing out balloons to the children. Her store manager and deli department manager work with the Pottawatomie County Relay for Life and involve the store to support those events as well.
Small town grocery stores are often needed in the community; however many must compete with larger chains in a close proximity. Such is the case with the Chapman Food Mart in Chapman, Kansas. Doug Thompson, a local attorney, opened the store nearly a year and a half ago. Before that, the nearest grocery store was 12 miles away. A 24-mile round-trip seemed accessible enough but still was a hindrance to some community members.
Thompson, also a “Rural Grocery Best Practices” panelist at the National Rural Grocery Summit, said a result of Chapman’s Neighborhood Revitalization Plan was discovering the desire of community members and the city commission to have a grocery store in a specific location in town.
“When we started with the idea, we recognized we are not a chain store,” Thompson said. “We are a small grocery store of 8,000 square feet. We recognized that we needed to learn everyone’s name, and thus they will learn our names. We interact with the people. We go to church here. We participate in the town parade. We do sporting events here.”
While Chapman may be a small town of nearly 1,400 people, the high school covers an area of over 500 square miles and is in a 4A athletics class, Thompson said. The school buys many items from the grocery store, and the store, in turn, supports fundraising efforts by the teams and clubs at the school.
While sales have increased month to month, Thompson knows that someday they will level off, as Chapman is a small town—and he’s fine with that. What keeps him going is making sure that as the owner, he is providing unique items and a unique “hometown” experience.
“Lots of places can sell dry goods,” he said. “You have to have something that is unique, and part of that is the appearance of the store. Some of it is the way your staff interacts with people. But, then you also have to sell some special things. We have a deli. The people in town know when we are barbecuing and smoking meats. People from out of the area come to the store for fresh meat, as they know it is cut daily.”
Supplying quality products at affordable costs, engaging with the community and providing shoppers with a comfortable and unique experience are just a few of the many ways rural grocers seem to make it work. More information about the National Rural Grocery Summit is available online at National Rural Grocery Summit.
K-State Research and Extension is a short name for the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, a program designed to generate and distribute useful knowledge for the well-being of Kansans. Supported by county, state, federal and private funds, the program has county Extension offices, experiment fields, area Extension offices and regional research centers statewide. Its headquarters is on the K-State campus, Manhattan.
For more information about K-State’s Rural Grocery Initiative:
David Procter, director, Center for Engagement and Community Development
and Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy, 785-532-6868 or firstname.lastname@example.org.