Rural communities fight to preserve local grocery stores
- Dozens of small-town grocers throughout Kansas have closed in recent years, creating rural food deserts, according to KUNC.
- The city of St. John, located in south-central Kansas, is hoping to secure an $800,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to bring a full-service grocery to its 1,300 residents. U.S. Senator Jerry Moran, meanwhile, has introduced a bill that would provide grants and tax credits to retailers that serve rural food deserts.
- Many residents living in small towns will travel long distances to reach Walmart stores. To compete, smaller grocers like Paul’s Grocery in Stafford, Kansas try to offer superior service.
When most people think about food deserts, they picture impoverished urban spaces void of grocery stores. But rural areas qualify, too, and many of these regions have seen a rapid decline in access to fresh foods in recent years.
Kansas, for one, lost one fifth of its grocery stores between 2006 and 2010, according to Kansas State University’s Center for Engagement and Community Development. Since 2007, 43 out of the state’s 213 rural groceries have closed.
Many communities are seeing declining populations that can’t support grocers. Towns with 1,000 people or less often don’t provide enough business to keep a supermarket afloat. Retailers that do succeed in these areas often do so by drawing customers from other nearby towns. Pat White, the owner of White’s Foodliner, which operates stores in rural Kansas and Oklahoma, told KUNC that he looks for towns with at least 2,000 residents, and that are at least 30 miles from the nearest big-box store.
Oftentimes, it’s a Walmart store that’s drawing shoppers from far and wide with its low prices, which are tough for local grocers to beat. Becoming a regional draw in rural areas throughout the country has been one of the keys to Walmart’s success in recent decades.
Over the years, dollar stores have also become popular outlets in rural communities, though traditionally these stores don’t offer fresh produce and other healthful foods. This is starting to change as more dollar stores have expanded their food selection. Dollar General, for one, says it’s seeing positive results from its stores that feature produce.
Increasingly, communities are looking to federal and state funds to bring full-service grocery stores to town. St. John is hoping a hefty grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human services, intended for projects that spur hiring in rural areas, will secure a vacant building for a grocer to occupy. Even with this money, however, as KUNC notes, there’s no guarantee a retailer won’t meet the same fate as other grocers that have set up shop in the tiny town.
Stories like this are playing out across the country as once-vibrant small towns dry up. It’s a reminder that for as over-stored as many cities and suburban areas are in the U.S., there are many places with little or no access to supermarkets.
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