Sunday, May 20, 2012

Groceries for Rural America

Alma Food Mart, Alma, KS
Beautiful rural America!  Farms and ranches stretch for miles, dotted with occasional small towns with tree-lined streets.  Well over 80% of the land in the US is considered rural, but only about 19.3% of our population lives there. 

Why are we talking about rural America on this blog about hunger?  Because one of the issues faced by rural communities is access to healthy, affordable food.  We had heard from many sources along our journey that small rural grocery stores have a very difficult time surviving, and when there is no grocery store in a small community, the whole area loses some of its vitality.  People then have to drive long distances to shop for food, which is a hardship for many, especially low-income and elderly people.

But the loss of a town’s local grocery store also means a loss of business for other small stores (people traveling for groceries will tend to shop for other items while they’re there), a decrease in property values, and a decrease in the health and well-being of town residents.   Grocery stores are an anchor for a community’s sustainability.

Jim Puff
by a display of local Alma cheese
We visited two small grocery stores in lovely little towns in northeast Kansas.  Let’s start there.

First is Alma (population 832), the county seat of Wabaunsee County (population 7,053). Alma is a little over a 30-minute drive to Manhattan or Topeka, KS, where some of its residents work. Other residents are retired or employed at the county courthouse or other small businesses in town.

The Alma Food Mart is the only full-service grocery store in the county.  It is owned by Jim Puff, whose family once farmed in this area.  Jim has a long career cutting meat and managing other grocery stores.  He bought the Alma Food Mart four years ago and operates it and its café, along with a restaurant and catering business elsewhere.  He employs about ten people, including the cook for the café. 

Alma Food Mart's
well-stocked fresh produce
The store is bright and clean and was stocked with an ample supply of meat, dairy (including locally produced Alma cheese), and excellent fresh produce.  When the recession hit, Jim shifted his shelf-stable items to a lower-cost brand and put in a “$1 aisle” to make things more affordable. 

Now on to the little city of Onaga (population 702), located in Pottawatomie County (population 21,604).  Pottawatomie county’s population is larger than Wabaunsee because it contains the towns of Wamego (pop. 4,224), St. Mary’s (pop 2,246), and a small part of Manhattan, KS, which is a little over an hour’s drive from Onaga.  

Onaga Country Market, Onaga, KS
Other small businesses in Onaga include a hospital, a trust company, a pharmacy, a hardware store, an auto repair shop, and an auto parts store.  The Pottawatomie county fairgrounds are also nearby.
The Onaga Country Market is brand new – it just opened December 1st, 2011, and it was featured in a story about rural food deserts on American Public Media’s “Marketplace.”  The previous store in town had burned down, and residents were being forced to drive long distances for their groceries.  For those who didn’t drive, the county had arranged for bus service to the nearest store.  
Pam Budenbender by Onaga
Food Market's fresh produce display

Finally, a new entrepreneur agreed to build a grocery store – Pam Budenbender, whose family owns a farm and other land near Onaga, had always wanted to own a grocery store.  She worked with town officials, a local banker, and many others to finance, design, build, and stock the Onaga Country Market.  There are about six full-time and eleven part-time employees, including Charlie, the expert local meat cutter.
Charlie, Onaga Food Market's meat cutter
On the surface, the Alma Food Mart and the Onaga Country Market appear to be successful small stores making a huge difference in their communities.  But in addition, we heard about many challenges they face.  For another perspective, we traveled to the Center for Engagement and Community Development (CECD) at Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS.  There we spoke with Dr. David Procter, Director. 

David Procter, Director
Center for Engagement and Community Development
Kansas State University
CECD was founded in 2006 to connect the interdisciplinary resources of the university with the needs and goals of Kansas.  One of the many programs run by CECD is the Rural Grocery Initiative.  Its funding comes from the state of Kansas, as well as a USDA Rural Business Opportunity grant and an Agriculture and Food Research Institute grant,  CECD was alarmed by the facts that at least 7 counties in Kansas have no grocery store, and of the 213 stores in existence in 2007, 82 have closed or experienced a change in ownership.  The Rural Grocery Initiative helps address the challenges faced by small-town grocery stores, shares best practices, and thereby increases the chances that these stores will remain viable and will provide healthy food to citizens in their rural areas.  CECD is sponsoring its third biannual Rural Grocery Summit, June 5-6, 2012.

Here are some of the challenges that David said were identified by participants in previous Rural Grocery Summits, along with what we heard from Jim, and Pam:

Competition with chain grocery stores:  Who hasn’t heard stories of “big box” retail causing small stores to close?  As Jim said, “We’re being eaten alive by the Walmarts today.”   He shared several stories of large stores with ample resources and marginally lower prices luring customers away from the little community stores.  People don’t realize what they’re losing by shopping at the big stores until their local store is forced to close.   Then whether they want to or not, everyone has to travel to shop.

Models of ownership:  One mistake communities sometimes make is to assume that a grocery store must be owned by an individual entrepreneur.  The stores we visited in Onaga and Alma are both privately owned and operated.  But CECD has identified examples and published case studies of four additional models of ownership that have been successful in keeping grocery stores in small towns:  Community owned store, cooperative store, non-profit store (perhaps with a broader mission of ensuring healthy food access), and grocery stores run by public schools that see their role broadly as community development.

Financing:  Financing is a serious issue for any small business, and grocery stores are no exception.  Both Pam and Jim related the hefty investments they and their families have made in their stores, as well as the varied financial strategies needed to establish and keep their businesses running.  Getting the Onaga Country Market built and furnished required a package of 5 different bank, town, county, state, and federal loans.  Jim said, “Banks don’t work with you like they used to,” so keeping the Alma Food Mart running has necessitated short-term notes instead of longer-term lines of credit.

On a more positive side, David mentioned that some rural towns may benefit from President Obama’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which is awarding grants for the construction of new grocery stores in urban & rural food deserts. 

High operating costs:   Operating costs, particularly for energy, can be very high, especially since many rural grocery stores are located in aging buildings.  Jim says his electric bill was nearly $4000 last month.  Unexpected repair costs can cause severe difficulties, such as last summer’s heat-wave related failure of the compressors that run the store’s coolers.

Minimum buying requirements:  Most grocery distribution companies require larger orders than small-town grocery stores can sell.  Both the Alma and Onaga stores are members of a distribution cooperative called Affiliated Food Midwest.  Affiliated brings together 2900 small stores to enable buying on a larger scale.  They deliver twice a week and also provide lots of assistance to help stores be successful.  But still, each store is required to purchase a certain amount each week (e.g., $9-10,000).  Any store that can’t move that amount must pay a 5% surcharge, quite a penalty for a store that’s struggling in difficult economic times.  Some small stores have pooled their orders or taken on ordering for local institutions like schools, nursing homes, or civic organizations to help reach their weekly quotas.

Labor issues:  Neither the Onaga Country Market nor the Alma Food Mart mentioned labor issues to us.  Both Pam and Jim said they employ highly qualified local people and a few high-school kids.  And Jim said that he puts in 110 hours a week and other family members also work in his store and catering business.  But David told us that many stores in small towns do have trouble recruiting reliable workers who will provide the kind of customer service so important to the success of small stores.  Some are turning to hiring older workers rather than high-school kids.

If a store falters, the labor issue of lost jobs is far greater than just that store, as other businesses in town suffer from the loss of customer traffic.

Excessive Regulations:  This issue concerns high taxes as well as all the health and other governmental regulations that seem more appropriate for much larger stores.  Small store owners have told David that it takes almost one full-time store employee to make sure they’re following these regulations.  It’s a burden, given their limited resources. 

Another example we heard from both Pam and Jim concerned the process to become qualified to accept Vision cards (Kansas’s name for SNAP benefits EBT card) and to accept vouchers for WIC.  Not only did the processes take a lot of paperwork and on-site inspections, but the approvals took a long time to come through.  Pam said, “We had customers calling, ‘Are you accepting the Vision card yet?’  We had to tell them,’We’re waiting.’  One woman came to the store the day we got approval and asked again, and when we said ‘Yes,’ she cried, she was so thrilled.  Lots of people don’t have transportation, so it was important to get that approval so she could shop locally.”

Community support:  Finally, for small grocery stores to survive, they need the support of the local community.  They need people buying groceries there and helping shape the store to meet their needs.  We heard several stories about communities that didn’t realize how important the store was until it was gone, and then working hard to find a way to bring a store back to their community.  But as Jim said, “People forget and you have to keep educating them.” 

Stores must also work hard to provide the products and customer service that will earn their loyalty.  Pam said that she talks to customers every time she’s in the store, asks them what else they’d like to see on the shelves, and then makes sure she stocks that item for them.

One thing that’s irksome to small grocery store owners is when people who shop out of town come into the store looking for donations.  As David said, “The same people who are buying their groceries in Manhattan or Topeka are coming to the grocery store to ask for support for baseball teams, youth groups, 4H groups.”  CECD has worked with the school of journalism at Kansas State to develop buy local campaigns reminding people of the importance of supporting local businesses.  “Yes, it may cost you a bit more, but there are bigger issues at play here.”

We loved our visits to the Onaga Country Market and the Alma Food Mart.  We wish them long lives in supportive communities.  

And now in our own communities – what can we all do to keep the stores that are important to our communities?   Shop there, give our feedback on what else we’d like to purchase there, and let them earn our loyalty.


  1. "Why are we talking about rural America on this blog about hunger? Because one of the issues faced by rural communities is access to healthy, affordable food."

    With all due respect, doesn't it seem lazy to talk about hunger being a problem because someone might have to drive a little distance to get groceries.

    If they were hungry, couldn't they eat Alma Cheese? There are no gas stations with food in them? Seriously, "hunger"? Or are we all so desperate to be looked at as victims we cannot tell the difference between overweight and distended bellies?

    1. You're right that the loss of rural grocery stores won't lead to people actually starving. However, without a store nearby, it's very difficult for some (those who can't drive, don't have a car, or live on fixed income) to access healthy food. In Onaga, when the grocery store burned, the town found it necessary to charter a van to take folks to the nearest grocery store once/week. Or, these folks would have to rely on family, friends and neighbors to take them to a store. In some parts of the country, this might be 100 miles! How often would you want to impose on friends and family to take you? Surely not just because you were out of fresh fruits and vegetables!

      Yes, there MIGHT be a gas station in town that carried a few chips and pop. Probably not a full mini-mart like you're used to in a town, though. It wouldn't have those 5 or more servings of fresh fruits and vegetables that you're supposed to eat each day, or that whole grain bread.

      And yes, they could eat Alma cheese, if there were a place to buy it. Where would they buy it if there weren't a grocery store to stock it? Very few manufacturers sell their product directly to consumers. They rely on stores!

      Meanwhile, without a grocery store, the town (and nearby farmers), would have to drive that 25, 50, 100 miles to get groceries, and while they're there, they'll do their other errands, their drug and hardware items, get the car serviced, etc, so the local drug, hardware and auto shops would lose their business as well, and soon there won't be any stores in the town at all! No economic activity to provide jobs for town folk.

      So no, people in the small towns that lose their grocery store won't starve, but they won't be eating as healthy, those on the lower end of the economic spectrum will be much more dependent on others, and the whole community will falter.

  2. "Or, these folks would have to rely on family, friends and neighbors to take them to a store."

    Terrible tragedy.

    Seriously, this might be appropriate as an article about business, economics or small town life. There are lots of disadvantages of living in the city or in small towns. But in a blog about hunger? Are people so cold and heartless they can't take their own mother or neighbor to the grocery store once a week?

  3. This is so ironic. I am a lifelong resident of Alma and our local store listed here is now going out of business. For the past several months shelves have been getting barer and barer. It reached the point where the only thing that was always in stock was meat, milk, bread, and beer. It has only been open in the mornings the past several days too. Word has it Jim Puff recently laid off 6 out of 10 employees, half of those high school students in need of money. My wife and I are young people who will gladly support our community, and it reached the point where our hometown store couldn't supply the food we needed for us and our toddler, forcing us to drive to Manhattan. This talks about a loss of store means a loss of local economy, I see Alma as a dying farm town. Thanks for nothing Puff

  4. I see where you are coming from. I live in McFarland which to those reading, is only a mile or two from Alma. I used to do all of my shopping at the Alma Food Mart. Now I run to Topeka or Wamego for groceries. I wouldn't be so harsh on Jim Puff. He had faced some recent financial troubles and had to cut back on employees. I saw that the store is for sale as well. It will be interesting to see if the buyer can keep a successful store or decides to put in another business. I want a good close place to shop.

  5. I think it's horrible when any business must close it's doors, due to the lack of support of it's community.

    I thought living in a small community also meant your community was also your neighbors, family, and friends.

    I just wonder how many of the people living in Alma would put everything they own on the line to try to give back to it's community and keep a grocery store running because they thought that was the right thing to do?

    Put yourself in the place of a small town business owner, that is paying out more to keep the doors open then it is bringing in, and see if you, yourself don't start to have some financial troubles. When the shelves were full the town did not go there to purchase food. Instead they drove to Manhattan and Topeka. When gas gets to $5.00 a gallon I hope your still enjoying the long drive to get the food you need. It's sad really to think the only thing any small town business needs is community support to remain open.

    I hope the next time you see a child who has fallen down and crying in your small town of Alma or a senior who is hungry because they have no way to get groceries, you will help them get back up or take food to them, because that's what a true neighbor would do.

    I know there will be many homes in your community without any milk or bread in the near future because you don't have a local grocery store.

    Children and seniors will be forced to wait until you make that half hour drive to a store, and another half hour drive back home, while using $10.00 in gas money and the wear and tear on your vehicles.

    I thank you Jim Puff, and your family for supporting you for all these years.

    You are a hard working man, and have done a lot for your community. For many, many years when you were able to sponsor many of the ball teams, clubs and churches and many others, you gave from yourself to all of us, and it's sad to think the community of Alma didn't support you.