Preventing food deserts: Group trying to help rural grocers

Chad Frey
The Kansan
As Keith's Foods of Goessel served a fundraising meal in April this year, ownership was discussing a transition plan to allow Keith Funk to retire. As a result, James Janzen took over Jan. 1. "You can see it in all kinds of small towns," Janzen said. "The grocery store closes, and who knows what happens to the town after that."

There is a trend of rural and small-town grocery stores in Kansas closing, and a group called the Rural Grocery Initiative has noticed.

“Over a 10-year period, from 2008 to 2018, we tracked 54 rural grocery store closures,” said David Procter, co-founder of the Rural Grocery Initiative. 

One of those was Weaver Grocers in Hesston, which closed its doors in April 2018.

The city council of Hesston has had discussions in the past two years of what to do — but to date, no one has stepped forward to fill the void. Grocery shoppers in Hesston now can head to Newton, Buhler, Inman, Moundridge or Goessel. 

"That town, they are upset about that, that they lost their little grocery store," said James Janzen, the new owner of Goessel Grocery and Deli. "... We have had business from Hesston in the store. It is great for us, but it is awful for towns that don't have grocery stores."

Keith's Foods of Goessel was able to stave off closure when longtime employee James Janzen took over running the store this fall. 

According to the initiative, when a grocery store closes, the local community suffers. The Rural Grocery Initiative is attempting to take on the issue with a free online webinar series aimed at preventing closures. 

The eight-part series, “Keeping Groceries Alive: Successful Ownership Transitions for Rural Grocery Stores,” will kick off in late January to help grocers plan ahead so that their stores remain open, even after the owners retire or exit the industry.  

That is exactly what happened in Goessel. 

"Beginning of this month. I am now business owner. Keith wanted to retire," Janzen said. "We figured we needed to keep the place open and going. We had talked for about a year about that, and the time was right."

Janzen took over at the beginning of January and has no second thoughts. In part, he sees it as a civic duty to keep the small town grocery store open and operating as long as possible. 

"You can see it in all kinds of small towns," Janzen said. "The grocery store closes, and who knows what happens to the town after that."

Hesston is not the only city in Harvey County without a grocery store. Burrton, Sedgwick, Whitewater, Elbing and Walton are also places where residents must either rely on nontraditional places to buy food or drive to another city to stock their pantries. In McPherson County there are no listings for traditional grocery stores in Marquette, Conway or Windom. 

Procter said that without transition plans in place, grocery stores often abruptly close, leaving local communities with limited access to healthy food. 

“We’ve learned that if a community can transition ownership and keep their store open during the process, the store is set up for success,” Procter said. 

Weaver Grocers of Hesston closed in 2018, leaving the town without a grocery store. Shoppers now go to Newton, Goessel and surrounding communities.

Keeping Groceries Alive is presented in partnership with NetWork Kansas, the Kansas Rural Center, the Kansas Center for Business Transition, the Food Co-Op Initiative and K-State Research and Extension. It is sponsored by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation through the Heartland Challenge. 

The Rural Grocery Initiative is a program supported by K-State Research and Extension to provide resources and help sustain independently owned rural grocery stores. Erica Blair, a program manager with the Rural Grocery Initiative, said making a business transition plan is in the best interest of grocers, 

“Especially as grocers near retirement, developing an exit strategy is an important step toward securing financial stability,” she said. “Many grocers also want to see their businesses continue to flourish so that their legacies and communities live on.” 

Rial Carver, a program manager with the Rural Grocery Initiative, said the webinar series will explore various community-supported grocery models. In many cases, according to Carver, some form of community ownership can be a viable option for maintaining a healthy grocery store. 

“Communities across Kansas recognize that grocery stores are critical assets, both for the economy and quality of life. When communities are involved in the transition plan for a grocery store, innovative ideas arise,” she said. “We’ve seen several rural communities have success with public-private partnerships, cooperatives, and even school-based grocery stores.” 

The webinar series is free and open to the public. Grocers, prospective grocers and community stakeholders are encouraged to attend. To reserve a spot and receive the Zoom link, individuals can register online at www.ruralgrocery.org.  

Upcoming webinars include: 

Jan. 28 – Grocery Business Transition Planning: An Overview  

Feb. 4 – Understanding Grocery Ownership Models  

Feb. 11 – Preparing for Business Transition  

Feb. 18 – Assessing Markets and Community Needs  

Feb. 25 – Planning your Business  

March 4 – Funding the Transition  

March 11 – Recruiting Store Managers  

March 18 – Mastering Grocery Store Nuts and Bolts