State

Finding healthier food options in Kansas’ small towns

The Cuba store has narrow aisles, a wooden floor, and shows its wear but the locals and visitors love it.
The Cuba store has narrow aisles, a wooden floor, and shows its wear but the locals and visitors love it. Courtesy photo

Small town Kansas grocery stores have to do more with less, be creative and continue to serve as anchors in their communities.

Earlier this week, more than 170 people — from across Kansas and 13 states from California to Maine — met in Wichita for the National Rural Grocery Summit.

Their take-home advice is that the stores are critical to the sustainability of their small towns, said David Procter, director of the Center for Engagement and Community Development and the Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy at Kansas State University.

The problem: of the 675 communities in Kansas, 51 percent have no supermarkets, he said.

Local stores have to increase customer loyalty, compete with large chain stores, develop models that are most effective for their communities and, often, find alternative methods to get their products to their stores.

Nearly one-third of supermarkets in Kansas communities under 2,000 residents have closed since 2007.

Nearly one-third of supermarkets in Kansas communities with fewer than 2,000 people have closed since 2007, Procter said.

But there is a bright spot for grocery stores that have an edge and that have created a destination spot for customers.

There is a big movement in rural America about building communities. And so, instead of watching small towns die, this movement focuses on grocery stores and keeping the movement of rural America alive and communities prospering.

Jenny Osner, owner of The Hired Man’s Grocery and Grill in Conway Springs

Jenny Osner is the owner of The Hired Man’s Grocery and Grill in Conway Springs.

“There is a big movement in rural America about building communities,” she said. “And so, instead of watching small towns die, this movement focuses on grocery stores and keeping the movement of rural America alive and communities prospering.”

She and her husband, Clint, opened the store in 2008.

Their store, along with the Onaga Country Market in Onaga, has been chosen to participate in a national grant funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“A lot of rural communities lack access to healthy foods,” Procter said. “A lot of these small, independently owned grocery stores are providing healthy food options. We are looking at ways to strengthen healthy food access.”

Procter’s Center for Engagement and Community Development is trying to help small grocery stores by providing technical assistance and research.

“When our town’s grocery store closed, we decided we would open up a grocery store for the community,” Osner said. “We did a lot of research before we opened. The statistics were scary. An increasing number of rural grocery stores are closing. And here we were, trying to open one and take on an enormous debt.”

A slice of rural life

The idea, Osner said, is to create places shoppers want to come.

“Half of our town are commuters,” Osner said. “The biggest competition we have is Wichita’s Wal-Mart and Dillons stores.”

Marci Penner, director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation near Inman, has toured more than 600 communities in Kansas.

Grocery stores are a great place to experience a slice of rural life. It’s amazing what these store owners or community volunteers do to keep a store open.

Marci Penner, director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation

“Grocery stores are a great place to experience a slice of rural life,” Penner said. “It’s amazing what these store owners or community volunteers do to keep a store open.”

The minimum buying volume per week is $10,000, Penner said.

“If you can’t buy that much a week, the wholesale truck doesn’t stop,” she said. “Small towns have to use creative methods to not only get inventory but to draw in enough customers. It’s a challenge for sure.”

The Family Food Store in Sawyer attracts people from miles around for their deli, bakery, grocery and family atmosphere. (Video by Beccy Tanner)

Some of the more creative stores include:

Scott’s Hometown Foods, 215 N. Harrison, Lindsborg, population 3,480 residents. It has an ethnic Swedish food section.

Palluca’s Meat Market and Deli, 207 E. McKay St., in Frontenac, 3,436 residents. It offers Italian items — olive oil, homemade pasta sauce and more.

Cuba Cash Store, 301 Baird St., Cuba, 149 residents. The store has narrow aisles, a wooden floor and a lot of spirit, Penner said. Residents unload the grocery delivery trucks and stock the store. The town has become an icon of community involvement, known for its annual weeklong Rock-A-Thon where residents typically raise more than $25,000 by simply rocking in rocking chairs.

Main Street Market, 102 N. Main St., Bucklin, 798 residents. Penner: “The best limeade in the state is made by Loretta in Bucklin. They make their own syrups, cut their own limes. You’ll find the soda fountain at the back of the store.”

Hometown Food Store, 217 S. Main St., Inman, 1,349 residents. Penner: “If you go to the Inman grocery store on Tuesday, your nose will know it’s the day they’re making German sausage.”

Maple Hill Market, 215 Main St., Maple Hill, 621 residents. Penner: “To make the grocery store work in this small town, owner Jim Puff built Puffy’s Steak and Ice House right beside it. The cheeseburgers are some of the very best in the state.”

Family Food Store, 201 S. Main St., Sawyer, 182 residents. Penner: “The Wolf family not only runs the store but bake the baked goods on-site. These cherry rolls are possibly the best in the nation. You can buy singles, but you’ll want more than one.”

Tipton Grocery Store, 601 Main St., Tipton, 211 residents. Penner: “Grocery stores in small towns are the anchor of the community. You’ll find museum items in the Tipton store, even Uncle Leo’s band uniform.”

Palco Grocery and Deli, 404 Main St., Palco, 277 residents. Penner: “It’s the little things that make the difference. In Palco, they have little carts for their young customers. Great memories lead to lifelong local shoppers.”

Muscotah Mercantile, 107 W. Second St., Muscotah, 176 residents. Penner: “C.J. Hanson ran the Muscotah Mercantile out of a blue house in the residential area of Muscotah. It was her dream to have a new building out on the highway. After a lot of local fundraisers, the store opened recently.”

Jensen Tire and Service, 225 Main St., Courtland, 273 residents. Penner: “If you need some groceries in Courtland, you’ll find them alongside the tires.”

Keith’s Foods, 216 E. Main St., Goessel, population 517. Penner: “Keith uses old-time product packaging to decorate his store.”

Beccy Tanner: 316-268-6336, @beccytanner

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