‘Food Deserts’ spread in rural America

Sylvia Maria Gross Nov 23, 2011

Kai Ryssdal:  Depending on where you live, it’s probably still not too late to get a bird for the big meal tomorrow. But also depending on where you live, getting a bird might be well nigh impossible.

Rural America has been losing its grocery stores. Fewer people are living in the countryside. Mom-and-pop markets aren’t always able to compete with the big chains — which tend to go where the people are.

But Sylvia Maria Gross reports from KCUR in Kansas City that some small towns are finding ways to buck the trend.

Sylvia Maria Gross: Last December, the only grocery store in Onaga burned down. Onaga is a town of about 700 in Northeast Kansas, surrounded by cattle ranches, corn and wheat farms. Suddenly, there was no place to buy groceries for 25 miles in any direction.

Althea Sender: You’re baking — you know — or fixing something and you need something. Well you can’t just run down to the store and get it.

Althea Sender is 86 years old, lives alone and doesn’t drive long distances. Today, she sits on a van sent by Potawatamie County to take Onaga’s elderly and disabled a half hour away to the nearest grocery store. Sender and her fellow Onagan 81-year-old Althea Fordham — yes two Altheas — have been taking the van regularly since the local store closed. Fordham says she does most of her shopping in one monthly trip, but produce is tricky.

Althea Fordham: Especially fresh fruits and vegetables — that’s the hard thing to get ahold of.

Onaga’s become what’s called a rural food desert — where residents live more than 10 miles away from anywhere that sells groceries. The USDA says at least 2 million other rural Americans are just like them. Those who can, mostly drive the long distances to shop. But the impact goes beyond access to fresh food. Onaga’s grocery store was the anchor of the town’s business district. Dan Peters runs the Onaga branch of Morrill & Janes bank. He says the local pharmacy and hardware store are among those struggling now that the grocery store is gone.

Dan Peters: People now — I have to drive and get my groceries — you know, I need to pick a screwdriver, bag of nails, whatever it is so instead of coming to the local hardware store I’ll just stop at home depot or some hardware store out of town while I’m there.

Town officials recognized the danger, and when the owners of the previous grocery store decided not to rebuild, they began aggressively courting other operators. There weren’t any takers, until Pam Budenbender came along.

Pam Budenbender: I had always said it was my retirement plan. I was going to go into the grocery business.

Budenbender and her husband own businesses in Kansas City — but they spend their weekends on a farm outside of Onaga. Budenbender hadn’t planned on opening a store so soon.

Budenbender: It’s very expensive to undertake from the ground up.

Banker Dan Peters and county officials helped Budenbender put together a package of low-interest rural development loans. But it wasn’t enough to cover costs. So, the Onaga City Council decided to do something unusual. They kicked in $375,000 dollars towards the new building. Mayor Gary Holthaus says it’s an investment in the future.

Gary Holthaus: I feel you need to do those things in rural communities if you want to survive.

That realization is coming to many towns in rural America. In the last three years, Kansas alone has lost nearly 90 small-town grocery stores. But like Onaga, at least a dozen towns have come up with creative ways to finance replacements. Some have opened them as non-profits. In others, residents buy shares in the stores. David Procter runs the Rural Grocery Initiative at Kansas State University.

David Procter: More and more in rural parts of the country, we will find a partnership between public and private dollars that go in to establish and sustain these grocery stores.

The new grocery store in Onaga is set to open December 1st. Owner Pam Budenbender watches as the first shipments arrive, and the staff begins stocking the shelves.

Budenbender: I think it didn’t really become real to me until today when the food started going on the shelves. And it’s like oh my gosh — we have groceries!

To introduce the new store to the community, Budenbender plans to raffle off free hams and ice creams during the opening weekend. Businesses in town are counting on the grocery store to bring old customers back, and maybe even draw in some new ones from the rest of the region.

In Onaga, Kansas, I’m Sylvia Maria Gross for Marketplace.

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