“It is hard to avoid the irony that huge portions of rural America – our so-called breadbasket – are considered food deserts,” writes Stuart Reid, Executive Director of Food Co-Op Initiative, in an essay for Cooperative Grocer Network. “Surrounded by huge fields of corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and other commodity crops, communities are losing their local grocery stores – and ready access to healthy food.”
That’s exactly why the Kansas Healthy Food Initiative (KHFI) was launched about two years ago – to improve access to healthy foods in Kansas, where 30% of counties are considered food deserts. As part of the KHFI team, IFF manages more than $5 million in combined loans and grants for food access projects. So far, the initiative has approved 14 projects in 12 counties with a total of almost $1.4 million ($1,070,985 in loans and $369,800 in grants).
One such project is Marmaton Market, a new food cooperative in Moran, Kansas, a small farming community in southeast Kansas.
To some in the small town (population: 522), the grocery store has always been there, right at the corner of Randolph and Pine. In some ways, they’re right – the 5,000-square-foot facility has been a grocery store for over 30 years, and the former Stub’s Market transitioned to Marmaton Market without even closing its doors.
But the behind-the-scenes story is that the marketplace almost closed all together, which would have left the residents there with no choice but to travel 26 miles roundtrip to buy basic food staples.
It is hard to avoid the irony that huge portions of rural America – our so-called breadbasket – are considered food deserts
“The owners of Stub’s wanted to retire and had been trying, unsuccessfully, to sell the store for five years,” said Sarah Jolley, a researcher from Wichita State University who worked with The Food Trust to assess the KHFI effort. “Concerned that the local grocery store would close – which can be a ‘nail in the coffin’ for small rural communities – the local nonprofit Thrive Allen County decided to take action.”
The nonprofit had reason to be concerned. According to Cooperative Grocer Network, nearly 1 in 5 grocery stories in small Kansas communities (populations under 2,500) went out of business between 2008 and 2016.
Fortunately, that wasn’t the case for Stub’s/Marmaton. Leadership from Thrive Allen County and funds from KHFI – a $50,000 grant and a $167,000 loan – allowed for the purchase and transition of the grocery store into a food cooperative owned by members of the community. The funds covered the costs of some renovations, including updated fixtures and equipment, as well as some working capital.
The Kansas Health Food Initiative (KHFI) is tackling challenges to food access in rural Kansas, where 30% of counties are considered food deserts. KHFI provides grants, loans, and technical assistance to projects that improve food distribution, upgrade grocery sale technology, and facilitate new, expanded, or improved rural grocery stores. Learn more about the KHFI members in our sidebar below.
Marmaton experienced some hiccups in the first month or so, when it was still working to secure its distribution contracts and update critical equipment. But since then the store has successfully transitioned into a functional co-op that offers amenities that keep people coming in instead of trekking to the nearest big box store. For example, the store:
- Carries locally grown and locally made products as well as specialty items like gluten-free food, French macarons, and specialty cheeses;
- Accepts both the federal SNAP as well as Double Up Food Bucks, a program from the Fair Food Network that helps customers get access to more fresh fruits and vegetables; and
- Offers special deals, recipes, and cooking classes.
“Marmaton can’t compete with the big box stores on pricing, so they want to offer amenities to keep people coming in, to help them feel like it’s worth shopping there,” Jolley said. “They want the store to feel ‘a bit more cozy’ and have it reflect the warmth of the community so folks will be willing to do most of their shopping in town.”
Ultimately, members of the KHFI would like the co-op to serve as a replicable model for other rural communities facing similar challenges.
“The successful transition of Stub’s Market into Marmaton Market has brought the community a sense of empowerment and self-determination it didn’t have before,” Jolley said. “The community is committed to this for the long-term with the belief that having a grocery store is part of having a thriving community.”
Members of the Kansas Healthy Food Initiative
- The Food Trust, a national organization focused on food retail for underserved populations
- IFF, which manages the loan fund
- Kansas Health Foundation, which provided the $4.2 million investment to create the initiative and which is engaged as a partner with expertise in health issues related to food access
- Kansas State University Center for Engagement and Community Development, which works directly with food retail outlets and other organizations to improve food access in high-need areas
- NetWork Kansas, an organization devoted to the growth of entrepreneurship and small businesses throughout Kansas