Loren Lance was less than impressed when he pulled up to Charlie Brown’s Market, his community grocery store in Mildred, Kansas, to find the doors locked and the shelves bare a few years back. After fretting about it for a few days, the farmer’s wife, Regena, said: “I think we should see about buying it.” So they did just that, reopening it as Mildred Store, much to the community’s delight, two months later. Keeping the 102-year-old shop viable is tricky, Lance admits, but he gets at least one person every day thanking him for being there.
“If I get within 10 miles, I stop by,” a passerby says, strolling past the deli counter. “That’s why it’s here,” Lance nods, “as a community service.” To generate business, Lance hosts live country music nights each month, drawing in 80–160 people for concerts and dances in an adjacent room.
“When the grocery store in a small town dies, the town dies,” says Yvonne Scott, AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) healthy food access coordinator, noting how the government estimates that 55 million Americans live in food deserts — more than 10 miles away from a grocery store. In Kansas, part of at least a third of the state’s 105 counties suffer from food deserts, affecting roughly 800,000 people, according to David Procter, director of Kansas State University’s Center for Engagement and Community Development, which tracks the closure of small-town groceries and works to equip communities and shop owners with access to savvy business plans, marketing analysis tips and ways to assess their town for store viability. By making Mildred Store known not only for its meaty Charlie Brown sandwich but also as a communal meeting space, Lance is among a cadre of individuals and communities that have begun fighting back to ensure access to healthy food in rural parts of the Wheat State — drawing on civic-minded locals and community-minded organizations to keep their stores alive.
Since 2007, when there were about 213 rural grocery stores in Kansas, says Procter, 45 communities have lost their stores. His work and that of community members and organizations like the Sunflower Foundation, Thrive, Live Well and the Kansas Health Foundation have helped save or restore many stores; today there are an estimated 193 rural shops. “There are lots of innovative things that people are doing to try to either start or sustain their local stores,” he says.
Some communities are pooling resources, making stores “community-owned,” Procter says. In other towns, communities are banding together to turn stores into cooperatives. In Moran, Kansas, for example, the local Stub’s Market is at risk of closing because its owners are looking to retire. Locals, hoping to save it, are working to convert the store into a food cooperative called Marmaton Market. Thrive Allen County asked AmeriCorps VISTA for help, and it sent Scott. So far, almost 100 members have signed on with the $100 membership fee. While the membership fees won’t generate operating capital, they do reflect community buy-in, which helps cooperatives secure grants and loans.
Some communities are striking a private-public partnership to keep their stores alive — meaning local officials declare food access a public good and use public dollars to support the grocery store. This approach is keeping the St. Paul Supermarket in St. Paul, Kansas, afloat. The city council paid to build the market, Procter says. He explains that a couple runs the shop, paying off the debt and drawing a salary, but that the city will always own the enterprise. By ensuring that the store is community-owned, no board or owner can turn around and say, “Your bottom line isn’t working.” In Kiowa, Kansas, the community has created a cooperative, and in Little River, the city government and a community foundation have invested together to ensure their store survives. Tax credits and grants are being used more than ever before. And in Plains, in the southwest part of Kansas, the community is taking the nonprofit route to open a store next year. “People are getting creative and, I think, realizing that they have to do it themselves,” says Scott.
After the supercenter Walmart moved in on the north side of Iola, most small grocers went out of business — not unusual when shops with bigger overheads like Walmart or Dollar General open nearby. Since then, the townspeople have struggled to get a grocery store back in the center of town that’s walkable for elderly residents. “This was a unique opportunity to bring the county and city together, along with a local group called Iola Industries,” says Bill Maness, Thrive’s economic development program manager, whose organization supported the effort by providing data, like the fact that Iola was losing $7 million a year as people left the town to shop elsewhere. Alongside grassroots support, this helped push local authorities to work harder to bring a store to town. The new G&W, a regional grocery chain, is set to open there this month.
Procter isn’t comfortable concluding yet that the reopening or sustainability rate for rural Kansas groceries is better than it was in the early 2000s, but he’s happy his work is beginning to make a difference.
Over at Mildred Store, old-fashioned Christmas candy — a trademark sales item there — fills shelves this time of year. And owner Lance, who’s busy farming and preparing to sell some cattle in the morning, is planning his upcoming music night, where locals dance amid the store’s antiques as he and other musicians take to their fiddles and guitars. There’s no guarantee that Mildred Store will survive. Nor is it assured that the Marmaton Market co-op will take off to replace Stub’s. But, says Carole Hamilton, a cashier at Stub’s who lives right across the street, “I believe people will fight to keep it open.”