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K-State Today

April 10, 2012

Restocking rural communities: University initiative using funding to help reopen grocery stores, increase benefits to towns

Submitted by Communications and Marketing

A Kansas State University initiative is helping rural communities across the nation restock their town with a disappearing business: grocery stores.

Since 2007, members of the university's Rural Grocery Initiative have studied the struggles of grocery stores in rural communities and have worked with several communities to help those stores stay open or start a new grocery store. The initiative -- part of the university's Center for Engagement and Community Development -- was recently awarded a nearly $409,000 grant from the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative.

To date, the Rural Grocery Initiative has helped establish grocery stores in the Kansas towns of Plains, Morland and Minneola. Burlingame and other towns are in the process of introducing grocery stores back into the community.

Although most of the focus remains in Kansas, the initiative's efforts have been featured on NPR, USA Today, Fox News and other media outlets. Moreover, it also has generated interest in small towns throughout the U.S., with rural communities in more than 25 states contacting the group for help.

"Local grocery stores represent a critical piece of infrastructure that sustains America's rural communities by providing food, supporting jobs and generating taxes," said David Procter, director of the center and the university's Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy. "Yet, these independently-owned grocery stores struggle to remain in business. This grant will support our Rural Grocery Initiative as we work to assist these important small businesses."

The initiative also will conduct two studies that further explore the relationship between a rural grocery store and its community.

The first looks at the effect of rural grocery stores partnering with local growers, farmers and food institutions, such as public schools, nursing homes and restaurants. Partnering with institutions that use large quantities of food could help grocery stores meet minimum buying requirements. The stipulation is set by national food distributors and requires that a grocer buy a set amount of food or be removed from the distributor's delivery route. Meeting this requirement is one of the most common challenges for rural grocery stores, Procter said.

Another study involves a community food assessment. It creates dialogue within the community about the importance of sustaining local grocery stores by making residents more knowledgeable about the benefits and challenges of the store.

Once the studies are completed, the findings will be published in academic journals and also turned into what Procter calls a rural grocery tool kit -- a guide on how to create a grocery store in a rural community, a process that can take years.

"We get lots of calls and emails from city commissioners, county commissioners, city managers and groups of citizens saying something like, 'We lost our grocery store and want to get one re-established. How do we do that?'" Procter said.

To answer that question, initiative members meet with the community to learn about the local situation and give residents multiple options for a store operation. These options include creating a grocery store that is nonprofit, individually owned, a co-op or operated through the local schools.

Procter and initiative members connect residents with communities that developed a similar store as well as with departments at the university that can help residents find more information on financial aspects and community messaging. To date, the initiative has partnered rural communities with the university's College of Business Administration; departments of agricultural economics, human nutrition, history and sociology, anthropology and social work; and the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications.

"While we're sort of the hub of activity, helping a rural community establish a grocery store is really a university initiative," Procter said. "It's really gratifying to know that Kansas State University is one of the first places that communities across the country come to for help and assistance, and that we can offer it to them in return."

Early findings from both studies will be featured at the third national Rural Grocery Summit, June 5-6, in Manhattan. The summit will also address the common questions of how to build and maintain a consumer base; how to secure state and federal funding necessary to upgrade and repair freezers, coolers and air conditioning; and how to meet minimum buying requirements.

More information about, and registration for, the Rural Grocery Summit is available at http://www.dce.k-state.edu/conf/ruralgrocery.