It won’t be long before a grocery store on wheels pulls up in the Cowley County towns of Burden, Udall and Dexter.
The Cowley County Anchor Mobile Market will be one of the first mobile markets in the nation trying to solve the problem of rural food deserts by bringing fresh, healthy food straight to shoppers.
It’s a model that organizers hope to spread across rural America: One day, you might find a grocery store pulling up into your own small town.
“This is a very different model,” said Elizabeth Burger, senior program officer at the health philanthropy Sunflower Foundation. “It’s a paradigm shift in the way people shop. We’re used to getting in a car and going to a store, not having a store coming to us.”
Over the years, grocery stores have disappeared in small towns around the country. About half of Kansas’ incorporated towns don’t have a single grocery store, leaving residents driving miles to pick up a gallon of milk or settling for a meager selection of food at the local dollar store.
In Cowley County, almost all grocery stores are located in Winfield or Arkansas City. The food in the truck will come from the Save-A-Lot in Winfield, which is part of veteran-owned grocery business Honor Capital.
A few shoppers will be allowed in the truck at a time, where they’ll find it set up with an aisle filled with produce, dairy, meat and kitchen staples.
Items will cost a few cents more than they would at the Save-A-Lot, but organizers say shoppers will save money in the long run by not paying for gas to get to a city with a brick-and-mortar grocery store.
The mobile grocery truck is a partnership among the Sunflower Foundation, Amerigroup Kansas (a state coordinator of Medicaid benefits), Cowley First (the Cowley County Economic Development Department) and Honor Capital.
Jim Allen, president of Honor Capital, said people often forget that rural, agricultural areas can also be food deserts.
A food desert is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other foods that make up a full and healthy diet.”
“The truth is there is a shortage and the dollar stores that came in behind and filled vacuums or caused local groceries to go out of business, depending on your point of view, don’t really carry fresh produce, dairy, meat like we’ll carry in the mobile grocery truck,” Allen said.
Not only do people lose access to healthy foods when a grocery store closes, they also lose a community gathering place, Allen said.
Because of that, the group wants to organize social events such as cooking demonstrations whenever the truck rolls into town.
While they plan to start with three towns, Allen thinks they could eventually serve up to nine communities in Cowley County, something they will assess after the truck begins its stops in June.
Allen is also planning to launch mobile markets in Virginia, Oklahoma and South Carolina.
Kerri Falletti, director of Cowley First, said many seniors and people with disabilities in Cowley County don’t own a car, making grocery shopping a challenge.
Communities across the state and country are facing similar challenges, Falletti said, and she hopes this grocery truck pilot will spread beyond the county.
Frank Clepper, Amerigroup Kansas president, said Amerigroup wanted to be part of the initiative since good food is such an important determinant of health.
An unbalanced diet can result in malnutrition, diabetes and other issues “across a full spectrum,” Clepper said.
In many places, people might have access to snack foods and soda but couldn’t get lettuce even if they wanted to, he said.
“That’s a problem for folks to maintain healthy lifestyles if they’ve got to spend two hours going out and shopping for food,” he said. “What we would really like to see is an operation that becomes replicable for other organizations that might have the wherewithal and fortitude to do this type of service.”
Burger said there’s not only a health incentive to the mobile truck, there’s also an economic incentive. Tax dollars from the mobile grocery truck will stay in the county, unlike tax dollars from a grocery trip to Wichita.
At the moment, other communities are brainstorming innovative solutions to the problems of food deserts, Burger said.
“We want to be catalytic to helping other communities figure out how to do it in their own way,” she said.