Sunday, June 27, 2010

So, what's driving the downfall of the local grocery?

Kansas a Food Desert? Absence of Local Groceries Troubling

Saturday, June 26, 2010 :: Staff infoZine
K-State Center, Research to Help Communities Make Food Accessible
Manhattan, KS -

Forgot the hamburger buns? While there was a time when a quick trip to a local grocery could make it easy to complete the meal, in many Kansas communities, the grocery store has closed.

Since 2006, 82 of 213 grocery stores serving Kansas communities with populations of 2,500 or less, have closed, said David Procter, director of the Center for Engagement and Community Development at Kansas State University, which organized and hosted a Rural Grocery Store Summit (at K-State) recently.

The closing of local grocery stores is not unique to Kansas, said Procter, who noted that the summit attracted nearly 200 participants representing 13 states.

The absence of a grocery or other store selling essential food items within a 10-mile radius is termed a "severe food desert," he said.

Such designations dot Kansas' landscape in both urban and rural areas, said Procter, who described the goals for the conference to be initiating dialog, identifying challenges and opportunities, charting a research agenda and networking to overcome the challenges and build on the opportunities.

The local grocery has traditionally fulfilled a key role in the community, Procter said.

In addition to the obvious -- making wholesome food accessible -- grocery stores have typically anchored community businesses and the community.

And, as an employer, the local grocery store has generated full and part-time employment opportunities, often with better benefits than larger employers, and revenue from sales taxes to support education, economic development and community improvements.

So, what's driving the downfall of the local grocery?

The lure of the big-box stores offering lower prices is a factor, but the value of the savings is eroded when travel time and money are factored into the equation.

Driving 10, 15 or 20 miles (each way) to a retail center takes time -- and it costs money. Conference presenter Doug Cunningham (from Norfolk, Neb., representing Affiliated Foods) noted that the American Automobile Association reports the current cost of driving a car is 56 cents a mile. That means the minimal cost for a 20-mile round trip is $11.20.

What often is overlooked, however, is the value of doing business locally, said Leah Tsoodle, K-State Research and Extension agricultural economist and researcher of grocery shopping preferences in Kansas communities.

For every $100 spent within a community, $45 stays within the community and may be circulated within the community as many as seven times, Tsoodle said. For every $100 spent outside the community, only about $15 is likely to return to the community.

"Small businesses drive local economies, yet given the combined loss in sales volume, consolidation of wholesalers, increase in minimum orders for delivery, and rising cost of transportation, smaller retailers face increasing challenges that may mean closing their doors," Procter said.

"Once the grocery store is gone, the closing (or consolidation) of the school often is not far behind," he said. And, without a grocery store and a school, a community will typically have trouble attracting new residents, and that means property values also will decline.

So, what's a community to do?

If Morland, Kan., a Graham County community of 150, is an example, the answer is "plenty."

According to Chris Petty, K-State Research and Extension agricultural agent in the county, the local grocery (Bean's Country Market) closed in 2006, when the owners retired.

The longtime store building needed updating, and the Morland Community Foundation looked into grant and other funds to help fund the renovation, but learned they were not eligible for the funding because the store was located in the flood plain, Petty said.

While some might have backed away from the project, this community of go-getters pooled resources to hire a civil engineer to evaluate existing zoning.

The business district hasn't been flooded since the early 1950s (more than 50 years ago), Petty said, so, after studying the landscape, the engineer updated the map to include a more accurate definition of the flood plain. Updating the zoning is expected to reduce insurance premiums for homeowners in the former flood plain and make building a garage or deck possible, he said.

Re-establishing the local grocery also could increase property values, said Petty, who noted that Morland has a bank, grain elevator, popular restaurant, hair salon and newly opened photography studio.

The local grocery and the restaurant (Prairie Junction) are expected to support each other, and that, too, will make the community stronger, said Petty, who explained that they expect to draw grocery customers from St. Peter, which is located 12 miles south; from Studley, six miles west; and Penokee, six miles east. The combined population of the potential customer service base is 350 people, he said.

Community organizers also have done their homework in working with Tsoodle and Paul Clark, a former K-State ag economist, to develop and conduct a customer survey to learn more about the products and services prospective customers want.

In developing the survey (funded by K-State's Center for Engagement and Community Development), ag economists focused on respondents' preferences in the grocery shopping experience with a follow-up section asking the respondents to rate how their current shopping experiences are meeting their expectations.

With a 30 percent response rate for such surveys considered excellent, the more than 40 percent response rate to the Morland survey reflected strong interest in the question of re-establishing the local grocery, Tsoodle said.

Overall, the responses were positive and encouraging to the Morland community organizers, she said. Eighty percent of the respondents identified quality of food as a reason for choosing to shop at a grocery store; 77 percent cited cleanliness of the store and store personnel, and 57 percent noted customer service as reason to shop at a grocery store.

Results from the survey also indicated that 95 percent of the respondents would likely purchase locally grown foods, the ag economist said.

The community has received verbal approval on the change in zoning, but is waiting for formal (written) approval to move forward, said Faye Minium, president of the Citizens State Bank and member of the Morland Community Foundation.

The foundation has applied for and received a commitment in stimulus funds to cover the majority of the renovations, but the money cannot be awarded until the zoning process is complete, Minium said.

We're ready to move forward, and hope to be open later this year, said Petty, who said the local store is initially expected to employ a manager and one-to-two assistant managers.

"The grocery store is an essential part of a community," Minium said. For now, however, it's not unusual for neighbors to loan a cup of flour, sugar, or, recently, an onion …

Related link
Rural Grocery Store Initiative and Summit -

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