For Mark Wellbrock, Jetmore Food Center is a passion as much as it is a business.
“Our customers deserve it. Our community deserves it,” Wellbrock said of the store he’s owned since 2001.
For the 800 or so who live in the western Kansas town, the store is the only source of fresh food. Without the food center, residents would have to drive nearly 30 minutes to reach grocers in either Ness City, Dodge City or Garden City.
The store makes the town a bit unique for Kansas — less than a third of incorporated cities with a population of 2,500 or less have a grocery store, according to data from the Center for Engagement and Community Development’s Rural Grocery Initiative at Kansas State University in Manhattan. David Proctor, the center’s director, said the number of small-town groceries has dropped since 2007 when he first began studying food access in rural Kansas.
As a major supplier of wheat, Kansas may be known as a breadbasket, but the state is dotted with food deserts — low-income areas with limited access to fresh food. In those areas, a third of the population lives more than a mile from a grocery store in urban areas or more than 10 miles in rural areas, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Proctor’s department estimates about 30 percent of Kansas counties have residents living in a food desert. In many cases, the entire county lacks access to fresh food.
“In so many towns, they can’t run to get a gallon of milk or a head of lettuce,” said Elizabeth Burger, director of the Sunflower Foundation’s Healthy Living & Active Communities program. “They can go to the convenience store where there’s less fresh food. It’s all high-fat food, and that’s obviously not good.”
Growing access to healthy foods
Marci Penner, director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Inman that promotes rural culture, first saw the decline of small-town grocery stores in the early 2000s, when she toured “every town in our state.”
Small populations struggled to support the local stores, she said, and when one shuttered, the town went with it.
“Access to groceries is vital to our little towns,” she said. “If it’s hard to get food, people leave.”
Decades ago, Penner and the Kansas Sampler Foundation encouraged members of its Kansas Explorers Club to spend just $5 at a small-town grocery store in the towns they visited in an effort to build support. At the same time, Penner started building a network of rural stores that could support each other. She said the effort saw some success.
That work has influenced K-State’s Rural Grocery Initiative, which provides resources to small-town stores, and in January 2017, the Sunflower Foundation launched a pilot program with about $150,000 in grants to help rural stores remain relevant.
The grant program provided grants for eight Kansas communities to plan and research ways to grow their business and healthy food options.
In Jetmore, through Hodgeman County’s Economic Resource Development Council’s GROW Hodgeman, Wellbrock researched online ordering options. Large stores like Walmart and Amazon recently have moved to online purchases that can be picked up or delivered in some areas. Wellbrock thinks a similar system would help the Jetmore Food Center stay competitive and increase grocery purchases.
Simply maintaining access to fresh food isn’t enough, so much of the program is geared toward healthy eating campaigns, Burger said. The Sunflower Foundation hopes those programs, like Eat Well Crawford County, will increase interest in healthy foods while also increasing the demand at local stores.
“We’re all creatures of habit,” she said. “Offering healthy food isn’t an option if there isn’t a demand.”
Challenges and solutions
In small towns across Kansas, grocery stores are economic hubs, but the smaller stores are harder to operate, said Wellbrock, who operated stores in the Kansas City area, Dodge City and Amarillo, Texas, before settling in Jetmore. Just like stores in larger cities, rural grocery stores must maintain competitive prices and quality, but they face shrinking demand.
“There’s huge pressure on rural communities to sustain themselves,” he said. “It’s hard to grow population.”
The biggest challenge for rural grocery stores is the cost and availability of distribution, Proctor said.
Food distributors often require a minimum purchase, which can be hard for small-town grocers to meet. Increasingly, stores are banding together to make bulk purchases, he said.
Some stores have seen success bypassing the distributor altogether. In this case, a group of stores will purchase a warehouse in a central location and distribute the food themselves. However, such co-ops are still rare in Kansas.
Many small grocery stores also face draining profits because of old, inefficient buildings. Proctor said K-State’s Energy Extension provides energy audits and can help store owners find grants to improve lighting, heating and insulation.
Recently, Wellbrock invested in new refrigerated cases for the Jetmore Food Center.
For Wellbrock, staying vital to the community has been about building relationships.
“This is our community,” he said. “When people walk in here, they know the owner. They know they’re going to get help. I think that’s what helps us compete with the big stores more than prices. It’s the small-town relationships.”