Eat & Drink

Food deserts: Closed grocery stores leave a void in rural areas

Diane Mundy idles in Harvesters’ Mobile Food Pantry drive-thru.

She’s at the tail end of a procession of purring and sputtering vehicles inching toward a parked semitrailer loaded with donated fruits, vegetables, milk, meat and bakery goods. The pantry rolls into Osage City, Kan., the third Thursday of each month. Twenty-four volunteers form an assembly line, loading food into the open trunks of cars passing through the community fairgrounds.

Mundy, the mother of three children ages 13, 8 and 4, remains in the driver’s seat of the family’s 2007 Chevy SUV while her infant niece sleeps peacefully in her car seat. She is just one of 459 men, women and children from the surrounding communities who devour 14 pallets — roughly 11,765 pounds — of food.

“I budget every month so much for this or that, but prices are going up,” says Mundy, a day care provider who makes $75 a week for each child she watches full time. Of course, fewer families can afford full-time day care so her work schedule looks like a jigsaw puzzle.

Although Mundy has arrived late, the line still stretches into the distance. Ahead of her are people from all walks of life who need help. The elderly Tom Skidmore of Osage City rides his motorized scooter, an American flag flapping from an antenna. Thornton Wells of Osage City walks through, gathering up whatever food he can manage to carry in outstretched arms.

Tracey Gragg of Osage City is in line to pick up groceries for the elderly people who live in her apartment building but don’t have access to a car. After receiving his groceries, Rodney Dorsey, a 30-year-old, single, unemployed mechanic from nearby Burlingame, Kan., parks his pickup truck and works as a volunteer to direct traffic.

Mundy also lives in Burlingame, a town with a population of slightly more than 1,000 and no grocery store. As a teenager, Mundy worked as a checker at one of three Burlingame grocery stores. Now they’re all shuttered, and the nearest Walmart is 31 miles away in Topeka, an excursion that eats up more of her limited financial resources.

Kansas may be known as an agricultural state, but these days large swaths can be considered food deserts, without easy access to affordable and nutritious food. The Center for Engagement and Community Development at Kansas State University found 82 out of 212 rural grocery stores in communities with fewer than 2,500 residents have closed since 2007.

On average, rural residents travel 10 or more miles to reach a supermarket or supercenter. For residents with time and money, the drives have become routine. But for low-income residents like Mundy, the trip can be an added stress on already strained budgets. Jerry’s Thriftway is 10 miles away in Osage City, but prices tend to be higher.

If Mundy needs a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk between grocery trips, she picks them up at the local convenience store, which advertises “donuts and pizza to go.” Research shows that if people don’t have relatively easy access to a grocery store, they fill up with inexpensive, highly processed foods with more sodium and trans fats. Five speckled bananas near the cash register are the only fresh fruit the store offers.

Mundy’s husband has been laid off for 3½ years, yet despite the economic hardships hitting residents of Main Street, Mundy has never considered moving to the city.

“I like my small town where everyone knows everyone else,” she says. “Besides, even if we got more grocery stores they probably couldn’t all survive.”

Across the miles

Harvesters has been sending mobile pantry units out to rural communities for six or seven years. In October it opened a 25,000-square-foot satellite distribution center in Topeka.

“The need has been there for quite some time, but it’s been exacerbated by the economic downturn,” said Karen Haren, president and CEO of Harvesters. The community food bank serves a 26-county area in Kansas and Missouri, including Kansas City.

As food production has become more consolidated, so has food retail sales. Where there used to be a family farm every couple of miles, mechanized agribusiness has taken over.

Competition from big-box stores is the most obvious reason for the staggering loss of mom-and-pop-type grocery stores in rural communities. But the economic downturn, coupled with high operating costs and low margins of the grocery business, also make it difficult for low-traffic stores to survive. Grocery wholesalers typically require orders of at least $10,000 a week.

Meanwhile, rural residents who can hop in a car seek out lower prices at city supercenters. That lack of community support helps drive the grocery out of business. And once a grocery store is gone, some communities have found it difficult to keep enough food on the table.

In Kansas, 14.2 percent of households are considered “food insecure,” a term meaning they don’t always know where their next meal is coming from. In Missouri, it’s 15 percent. The national average is 13.5 percent.

“I think it’s a hidden issue sometimes,” Haren said. “Rural communities tend to be out of sight and out of mind. You don’t drive by them and really see the need.”

A new approach

Grocery stores provide food security, jobs, a social hub and critical infrastructure. When a town loses its grocery store, the glue that holds a struggling community together is often gone.

“We do not have the infrastructure anymore. It’s completely gone, and fuel prices are not high enough to cause a change in people’s driving habits,” said Diana Endicott, president of Good Natured Family Farms, an alliance of 160 small family farmers that supply Kansas City’s suburban Hen House stores.

Endicott lives in Bronson, Kan., population 346. There is no grocery store so residents typically drive 20 miles to Fort Scott, a community blessed with a Walmart and two large supermarkets.

Meanwhile, farm consolidation is obvious across the Kansas landscape. Apple orchards are gone. There is little truck farming to provide produce. There are few locker plants to process meat. Farmers’ markets have helped alleviate some of the strain, but the growing season is relatively short.

“I think the answer is looking at more innovative models instead of trying to replicate what is no longer there,” Endicott says.

Instead of waiting for grocery stores to take the lead, Endicott has received grant funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to work directly with churches in vulnerable communities, including pastor Terry Glenn of World Harvest Ministries, a nondenominational church in Kansas City’s Ivanhoe neighborhood.

The church is willing to donate its building infrastructure — two commercial kitchens and space for cold storage — to create a new source of fresh food for its parishioners. The urban church model is one that may work just as well in a rural community.

“Actually, it might even work better in a rural community because they’re closer to the food and may be able to call on farmers to help create more of a bridge between urban and rural,” Endicott said.

The church’s grocery wish list?

Healthy, natural, organic and local foods, including clementines, grapes, local apples and hormone-free meats. The very same types of foods she sells to Hen House.

“It’s not going to be cheap food, but it’s affordable food,” Endicott said.

The value of local

Earlier this year K-State hosted its second Rural Grocery Summit to help communities explore innovative ways to bring back healthy, affordable food. The closing of local grocery stores is not unique to Kansas. Nearly 200 participants attended representing 13 states.

“A lot of these communities are not certain how to organize and manage a grocery store,” said David Procter, director of the Center for Engagement and Community Development at K-State and organizer of the summit.

Some of the 82 Kansas stores that closed have reopened as community co-ops. The residents of tiny Leeton, Mo., set up a school-sponsored enterprise in which students manage a grocery store — ordering, stocking and pricing items, working the counter and sweeping the floors. In Baltimore, a virtual store with pick-up at the local library is attracting attention because it can be tailored to fit the needs of urban or rural communities.

Now there are residents of Burlingame who think they’re ready for the return of a grocery store to their community. But like Diane Mundy, not everyone is sure they can break their big-box habit.

“It would be a lot easier (to have a grocery store in Burlingame) but I’d still probably go where it’s cheaper,” said Mundy, who recently filled out a questionnaire about her buying habits. “I’d probably pick up things like milk, butter and bread to support the local store.”

Mundy doesn’t calculate the estimated 56 cents per mile cost of driving (or $17.36 for a trip to Topeka) into her grocery budget because she can usually pair her shopping with other errands.

Researchers understand that changing lifestyle behaviors requires education. The K-State journalism department has been enlisted to help get word out about the value of shopping local.

“There is this idea of a mobile society that is linked with we want everything at the absolute lowest price we can get. You have to do what’s best for your family certainly, but if you’ve made an investment in your hometown isn’t that the broader, longer view?” Procter said.

“One of the conversations going on (in Burlingame) is, there used to be three grocery stores, and now they’re all gone. Residents are asking, ‘What has changed that will cause us to shop locally now when we haven’t in the past?’ I think they feel like they have a greater sense of connectedness to that town. They see the importance of buying local now that it’s gone.”