WICHITA, Kan. — Rural grocery store owners, food advocates and system experts are gathered for the fifth Rural Grocery Summit. If you’re wondering why I’m in the audience … well, let’s say you probably aren’t alone.
The answer as to why I’m attending the summit is both simple and complex. The most direct answer is that I grew up in rural America; I’ve lived it and have family still living it. What happens to them matters to me and, therefore, what ails rural places also matters.
More complex is my ongoing curiosity about how groups of people interact, and the ways industries and organizations adapt to ever-changing external forces.
Why have we allowed certain places to exist as food deserts? How long are we willing to let our tax dollars absorb that oversight? At what point does the public health threat outweigh the difficulty of developing a new food model that can work for a rural area?
Sure, there are many other discussions happening at the summit. Existing grocers want to know how to entice local producers and more shoppers, so they can meet the minimum delivery requirements of distributors. Advocates are interested in processes for local food assessments. Public health officials are sounding warning bells. Farmers are exploring more options for local produce.
But all of it boils back down to the public cost and human toll of food deserts.
Here are a few things that may surprise you:
• Roughly 4.75 million people across the nation live in communities that don’t have access to healthy foods.
• 98 percent of known food deserts — 20 percent of population in poverty and 33 percent at least 10 miles from a grocery store — are in rural America.
• Rural communities have the nation’s highest obesity rates.
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• For rural residents, cost savings associated with chain supermarkets or discount stores are offset by additional transportation expenses.
• On average, rural grocery stores produce 20 percent of local sales taxes.
• Rural grocery stores average 14 employees — five full time and nine part time.
As summit organizers phrased it: “Local grocery stores are critical for survival of America’s rural communities. These stores are an important part of the economic engine that sustains rural communities, providing essential jobs and taxes. They are a vital source for nutrition and health, providing a supply of fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy and protein. A local grocery store is most important for the rural young, elderly and those with limited resources. Grocery stores are where we meet friends, catch up on the latest news, and stay connected. Grocery stores, like schools, cafes, and post offices are community assets that attract and retain citizens. A thriving local grocery store is a sign of a healthy community. Regrettably, many local grocery stores struggle to keep their doors open.”
In upcoming blog posts I’ll be diving into some of the nuances surrounding rural grocery stores and local food networks. I plan to pass along a few ideas and success stories from programs that have worked in other parts of the country. I’ll also introduce you to the Minnesotan turned Iowan who bought his first grocery store at the age of 17.