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K-State helps communities network to keep groceries local

K-State Research and Extension


The current population of Gove, Kansas, is about 100 people. There used to be a grocery store in Gove, but when the owners retired nearly 30 years ago, it closed. The town was too small to attract a private owner for the store.

So the Gove Community Improvement Association was formed in 1986 to do something about it. Now, thanks to the community-owned grocery, café, and food distribution center, residents have a local source of groceries and a local gathering place.

The distribution center receives deliveries from a wholesale supplier and then distributes groceries to several other small stores in the area. This helps the GCIA grocery and the other stores since suppliers charge delivery fees to customers who don't meet a minimum order.

Gove is not unique among Kansas communities. Many community groceries are foundering as rural populations age and decline. And several community-focused organizations, including K-State's Center for Engagement and Community Development, Kansas PRIDE, and the Huck Boyd Institute for Rural Development, are working together to provide resources and support for rural groceries.

Dan Kahl, PRIDE coordinator and liaison to the CECD, said rural groceries are important for many reasons.

"We recognized the importance of rural grocery stores for not only the economic well-being of rural communities, but also the social, cultural, and human health-related aspects of rural living."

These organizations, along with the Kansas Sampler Foundation and supported by a grant from USDA Rural Development, conducted a survey of more than 200 rural groceries and nearly 6,000 customers, then convened a Rural Grocery Summit on June 1, 2008. About 85 store owners, government officials, business developers, food distributors, and other citizens met and developed plans to encourage support of local groceries and find ways to help rural stores compete and thrive.

"The summit was unique in that it created a new opportunity for rural grocers to come together to identify common issues they face, and begin to network and learn from one another," Kahl said. "Prior to the summit, there had not been an avenue or network for rural grocers to communicate."

To help stores communicate, CECD developed the Rural Grocery Store Initiative Web site. The Web site features news relevant to store owners, a communication forum, links to resources, and the results of the store and customer surveys. The surveys revealed what Marvin Beesley, GCIA board member and grocery volunteer, knows from experience. Declining rural populations and the attraction of larger stores in larger towns makes staying in business hard for community groceries.

He said his group is trying to highlight ways their store is competitive. One of the board members did some comparison shopping by visiting a grocery in a larger town that uses the same wholesale distributor, then bought the same items in Gove. The shopper saved 10 percent by shopping in Gove, without even factoring in the price of gas to travel to the larger community.

Beesley said they're emphasizing this fact in the store. Still, he said, the store isn't making anybody rich, but it is serving its customers, and that's always been the goal. "We don't need to make money to survive," Beesley said. "We just want to be able to buy groceries."