When a small town loses its grocery store, it loses not just an economic driver, but a bit of its identity, too.
“If your store closes, that says bad things about your town and the direction it’s headed,” said David Procter, director of the Center for Engagement and Community Development at Kansas State University.
To help towns sustain their local food suppliers, the center has begun a Rural Grocery Store Sustainability Initiative, which recently received a $50,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development office.
With that money, the center and its partners, the Kansas Sampler Foundation and the Kansas Rural Center, plan to survey the nearly 200 grocers who serve towns with fewer than 2,000 residents. Then Procter hopes to organize a “rural grocer summit” that will bring far-flung entrepreneurs face to face.
“We’ve found that these grocers are very independent,” Procter said, “but they’re also very unorganized, and they don’t talk to one another.”
Even so, they face many of the same challenges: shrinking population, variable customer loyalty and high fees. One dominant distributor requires stores to order $10,000 of goods each week to avoid a surcharge, Procter said.
In addition to keeping a town’s economy healthy, a good grocery store can prove vital to its customers’ health. Procter cited a study that showed higher rates of heart disease and diabetes in towns whose only retail food sources are convenience stores.
An interactive Web site for the initiative is in progress; Procter already has fielded e-mails and introduced grocers to K-State faculty and extension experts. “The Center for Engagement and Community Development is in the business of connecting resources,” he said.
“Grocery stores aren’t the only answer, but they’re a big piece,” Procter said. “If K-State can provide some strategies to keep small-town stores viable, then I think we’ve done a pretty valuable service for rural Kansas.”