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K-State Today

December 2, 2011

Loss of local grocery stores drawing Congressional attention

Submitted by Nancy Peterson

The lure of potential savings at big box stores is considered a factor in the closing of local grocery stores, and particularly the closing of rural grocery stores.

Such stores often are located 20, 30 – or more miles – from a rural community, and, while the cost to drive and value of time on the road can erode savings, what happens when roads close?

To put it in perspective, David Procter, director of Kansas State University’s Center for Engagement and Community Development, cited the example of Walsh, Colo., pop. 650, and a community in which the local grocery store had closed.

When a wintery mix of snow, ice and blizzard conditions brought road closures and hazardous traveling conditions, residents were unable to replenish essential foods.

“The inability to access food during the storms prompted residents to make re-establishing a local grocery store a priority,” said Procter, who reported that residents organized, sold shares to raise capital to re-establish a local grocery, and made a commitment to shop locally.

“The Walsh, Colo., grocery is a success story, yet many communities are struggling to find a solution that will work for them,” said Procter, who was invited to testify before the U.S. Senate Hunger Caucus Dec. 1 in Washington, D.C.  

He testified before a U.S. House of Representatives Caucus on Hunger in 2009.

Procter, a former speech department head, was tapped to head K-State’s center in 1996 and charged with matching resources and expertise at the university to community needs throughout the state.

The decline in local grocery stores has been gradual, and the plight of the local grocery store has become a key issue, he said.

Since 2006, Procter said that 82 of 213 Kansas communities with populations of 2,500 or less have lost their local grocery store.

The problem is not unique to Kansas, said Procter, who served as a driving force in organizing a 2010 Rural Grocery Store Summit that attracted more than 200 participants representing 13 states.  

“Other countries – Canada, Mexico and Gambia – expressed an interest as well,” he said.

Local grocery stores typically anchor community businesses, said Procter, who noted that, while the lure of big box stores and a more mobile society are factors, changes in food distribution requirements (a minimum weekly order of $10,000 to $12,000 is an example), operational costs of older buildings with less efficient heating and cooling systems, a limited labor force and owners who burn out also are factors.

“Meeting the distribution requirements is a huge challenge,” said Procter, who praised tiny Gove, Kan., pop. 125, for coming up with a can-do idea that is allowing their store to thrive, and, also, supporting small stores in nearby communities to survive.

“The stores pool their orders to meet distributor’s requirements,” said Procter, who explained the larger order is delivered to the Gove fire station, where food can be separated and then delivered to each of the smaller stores.

“It works,” said Procter, who noted that a third grocery store summit is planned for June 5-6, 2012; conference information will be forthcoming and available on www.ruralgrocery.org.

The loss of a grocery store is an economic development issue, he said.

And, while the loss of a grocery store may be triggered, at least in part, by a school consolidation, there is a domino effect, in that when the grocery store closes, other businesses begin to suffer, and, as businesses decline, the community is less able to attract new residents and property values begin to decline.

The economic issue is key, yet nutrition and community health also suffer with the loss of a local grocery store, said Procter, who earlier this year paired with his wife, Sandy Procter, a registered dietitian and K-State Research and Extension nutrition specialist, to speak about the loss of local grocery stores and the nutritional consequences of food insecurity at The California Childhood Obesity Conference.

Sandy Procter is Kansas’ state coordinator for the USDA Expanded Food and Nutrition Education and Family Nutrition Programs, and vocal about her assessment of the situation.

“The newly revised USDA dietary guidelines recommend eating a variety of foods for health, but such foods aren’t likely to make it into the diet if they’re not available,” she said. “Convenience stores, which sometimes try to bridge the gap in a community that has lost its grocery store, usually stock more processed foods that are higher in calories, fat and sodium rather than fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grain cereals and breads, low-fat dairy products and lean meats and poultry recommended for health.

“Variety is key to health,” said Procter, who joins her husband in advocating for local grocery stores.

According to David Procter, “We need to think creatively, explore opportunities, and share ideas with policy makers because a local grocery is critical to the infrastructure of a sustainable rural community.”

“Without action,” he said, “the inability to access food will end rural life as we know it.”