Residents of St. John packed a room in late January for an emotional, standing-room-only town hall meeting.
A week later, Topekans gathered for an eerily similar meeting. The two groups – one from a town of about 1,300, the other from a city of 127,000 – were separated by about 200 miles and an urban-versus-rural lifestyle divide. But they were united in their frustration over an increasingly common struggle in Kansas: the loss of their local grocery store.
In a state that prides itself on feeding the world, residents in many areas are limited in what they can feed themselves.
“What’s left is more or less convenience stores with the high-sugar foods and the unhealthy stuff,” said Ron Brown, a vegetable farmer from the Fort Scott area.
Brown is chairman of a Local Food and Farm Task Force established by the Legislature that is seeking to bring more fresh produce to those areas, while at the same time cultivating a new facet of the Kansas agriculture economy.
Brown, past president of the Kansas Vegetable Growers Association, will tell you it’s actually an old facet the task force is trying to revive.
“Kansas at one time was a giant, really, in fruit and vegetable production,” Brown said.
In the 1920s, Kansans grew about 65,000 acres of fruits and vegetables, including potatoes. At that time, farming was not only a way to make a living, but a way of life.
“Back in those days they about had to grow their own to survive,” Brown said, “and back in those days most people lived on a farm, too.”
Now the state grows about one-tenth that much produce, despite having almost twice as many residents.
Focus on commodity crops
Over the decades, family farms gave way to large-scale agriculture more focused on commodity crops like wheat and soybeans.
Kansas became a major player in those markets, ranking seventh in the nation in agriculture exports by 2012.
But that same year the state’s consumers were spending about 90 percent of their food budget on imported items. And, according to the Kansas Rural Center, in the five years prior to 2012, 82 of the 213 supermarkets operating in communities with populations below 2,500 closed their doors.
All of which led to an irony that Brown laid out for legislators: trucks full of food heading to out-of-state processing plants and driving past rural communities increasingly in need of more fresh, unprocessed options.
Brown’s task force, established in 2014, released a 56-page report in December providing a number of recommendations. They included adding resources specifically geared to specialty crop growing and local food marketing to Kansas State University’s Research and Extension program and lowering the state sales tax on food from 6.5 percent to 5.3 percent.
Thus far, legislators have not acted on those recommendations. But they did agree to extend the work of the task force for another year at an estimated cost of about $8,400 by passing Senate Bill 314.
Gov. Sam Brownback signed the bill into law on April 7, and the task force will start meeting again soon.
Brown said the extension was necessary because once the task force got to work, its eight members found an abundance of research to digest.
“We were so overwhelmed with presentations of good material we just couldn’t work it all in during that period of time,” Brown said.
K-State alone is a fount of information related to the task force’s work.
K-State lecturer David Proctor has briefed congressional groups on the issue of rural grocer losses, and sociology graduate student Michael Miller has published research on food deserts in small cities, using Topeka as a test case.
Members of the Kansas task force include David Coltrain, an expert on sustainable agriculture who teaches at Seward County Community College, and Cary Rivard, head of K-State Extension’s fruit and vegetable division.
Filling the void
The scarcity of fresh produce in certain areas of the state is well-documented, and Brown said the task force has the expertise to help Kansans ramp up production of those crops. But it needs more time to figure out how to connect the two in a profitable way.
Kroger, the company that operated the Dillons stores that closed in St. John and central Topeka, could not make the financials work in those markets.
Sheila Lowrie, a spokeswoman for Kroger, said the St. John store had not been profitable since 2002 and the Topeka store had not been profitable since 2004.
Both were smaller-format stores, she said, and in a grocery business with traditionally thin profit margins, the trend is toward bigger operations with more products, more selection and ultimately more sales.
“It’s not supply,” Lowrie said. “It’s the volume needed to sell the merchandise to make the store profitable.”
Wal-Mart also has closed some of its small-format stores, including a Neighborhood Market in Rose Hill that was that town’s only grocer.
As small-format grocers close, less populous and less wealthy communities that are not able to support megastores are left with a hole in their food-buying options.
Brown’s task force is looking to fill those voids with markets selling fresh foods grown locally, either direct-to-consumer or through a corporate partner willing to deal in lower volumes.
With commodity prices dropping, he believes it would be a win for Kansas farmers as well as Kansas consumers.
“It’s just unlimited what this could turn into,” Brown said. “We just need some time and a little bit of imagination.”