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Groups come together to address food insecurity in downtown KC
Culture of Health grant helps to feed community’s input on new grocery store
August 27, 2019
KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Karen French considers herself one of the lucky ones.
When the Kansas City, Kan., resident needs a pack of eggs or a loaf of bread, she can get in her car and drive about four miles to the nearest grocery store to get her supplies. Depending on traffic, the round trip takes about 30 minutes.
That may seem like an inconvenience for basic goods, but French knows she’s got it better than most of her neighbors.
“A lot of people around here are using public transportation, such as the bus,” she said. “And you can only carry so many items on the bus and be able to breathe at the same time, especially if you’re an older citizen.”
This is life in a food desert, a term that’s come to represent urban or rural areas where residents have limited access to healthy food because of the distance to grocery stores, or the difficulty of getting to those stores.
“In Wyandotte County, we have about 18 areas that are designated as food deserts,” said Nozella Brown, director of K-State Research and Extension’s Wyandotte County office. “That’s about 27,000 residents that are without food access, or are struggling with food insecurity. That’s been a problem for several years.”
Brown noted that Wyandotte County routinely lands at or near the bottom of the state’s health rankings, largely due to the fact that residents’ most common food sources are convenience stores and fast food restaurants.
That could change soon, however, after a recent announcement by the Unified Government that a grocery store will be built in the heart of the downtown area.
“This is an amazing first step to providing affordable and healthy food to quite a lot of residents and people who work in the downtown area,” said Katherine Carttar, director of economic development for the Unified Government, which is a consolidation of the governing bodies in Wyandotte County and City of Kansas City.
“For most people in this area, it’s a minimum of a 20-minute drive to get to the closest grocery store, which is a bit too much. That leads to people making poor food choices and we want to make sure that people have the most healthy food options. It’s really important that we’re able to provide access to food to a wide swath of our population here.”
The new store – called The Merc Co+op – will be built on the southwest corner of 5th Street and Minnesota, a spot that is quickly becoming a hub of activity with a recently built hotel and the upcoming opening of the University of Kansas Health Center’s Strawberry Hill campus.
“We’re a consumer-owned cooperative, which means we are owned by people who shop at the store,” said Rita York Hennecke, general manager of the Merc. “You don’t have to be an owner to shop at the store, but we are 100% owned by the community.”
The Merc has just one other store – in Lawrence, where it has 8,000 customer-owners. “It’s an amazing model that allows people to buy equity into this business and have a voice, and help shape the future of the co-op,” Hennecke said. “When you’re an owner you get a portion of the profits back at the end of the year. We are not in business to make a lot of profit. We are about people, planet and profits.”
Perhaps even more compelling for local residents is that they will be able to provide input into what foods are available in the store.
“They have actually asked us about the labels and name brands that we want to buy,” said French, who will be able to walk across the street from her home to the new store. “They are doing their research to see what the community wants as far as food products and affordability.”
Brown said members of K-State Research and Extension’s Wyandotte County office were instrumental in gathering the community’s input. In early 2019, the university awarded that office a Culture of Health grant through a program aimed at helping the state’s extension professionals facilitate health initiatives in their communities.
“We used our Culture of Health grant to work with the Unified Government and the Merc and other organizations in the county, so we could listen to the community and engage them as we began this project,” Brown said.
“Those listening sessions allowed us to hear from the community and educate people about what a co-op is and what it is not. It also allowed us to hear from those that normally are not talked to about what they would like when a grocery store comes in.”
In all, about 350 residents were able to provide input regarding foods they would like to see in the new store.
“Being in a community that for a long time has been ranked as the most unhealthy in the state, it’s good to have a grocery store that has a farmer’s market in there, and that is being driven by community people,” said Gary Enrique Bradley-Lopez, whose apartment is just a little over two blocks from where the new store will be built.
At a recent groundbreaking for the store, Kansas City, Kan., mayor David Alvey called the moment “special because so many people of goodwill for many years and against many challenges sustained a passion to bring a grocery store to the people of our downtown neighborhoods.”
The Merc Co+op is scheduled to open in Kansas City, Kan. next spring, Hennecke said.