Rural Kansas, the breadbasket of America, ironically is home to numerous food deserts, meaning these populations are more than 10 miles away from the nearest grocery store. This is a big problem for the elderly, the poor and those who don’t drive. The Rural Grocery Initiative (RGI), part of the Center for Engagement and Community Development (CECD) at Kansas State University, works with local communities to tackle this problem.
The CECD opened in 2006 to address the needs of the people of Kansas and much of their work is supported with philanthropy and grants. “As word got out about the center, we started getting phone calls, emails and letters from people all across the state saying how important this rural grocery issue was,” said David Procter, director of the CECD. “Access to healthy food is a real need that people in rural communities have.”
There is a broad-based effort originating at K-State to help rural grocery stores. RGI hosts a Rural Grocery Summit that teaches small communities how to get and maintain grocery stores in their towns. The Pollution Prevention Institute helps grocery stores conduct energy efficiency audits and apply for USDA grants. Many communities work with human nutrition faculty at K-State to provide healthy foods and menus for people with special dietary needs.
Jenny and Clint Osner, who own and run the Hired Man’s Grocery and Grill in Conway Springs, Kansas, know first-hand the important place grocery stores hold in small communities. “About ten years ago, the grocery store in town decided to close and Conway Springs was without a grocery store,” Jenny said. “We opened the grocery store for our community. Without a store in town, our community lacks access to perishable, healthy food items. The Rural Grocery Initiative is a great resource. They offer suggestions, ideas, have access to grant studies we have partnered with, and they help us educate our communities. We don’t see RGI as just a resource — we consider them our friends.”