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SUCCESS STORY: Kansas Grocer Supports Healthy Local Foods
Produce items adorned with oval-shaped gold
stickers at Hiawatha Thriftway, located in northeast
Kansas, are grown by local farmers. Store owner Tim
White partners with the local farmers’ market to
bring these locally grown foods into his store.
Making a Rural Business Work
“That’s the relationship I’ve tried to build with the
producers,” White said. “They come to the market
to sell their goods, and they hope they sell out. If
they don’t, I’m here to help them out. I want to sell
that product on my shelves, too, and give people
who can’t make it to the market the opportunity to
buy those locally grown products out of my store.”
The local market runs out of Hiawatha Thriftway’s
parking lot on Tuesday evenings and gives people
the opportunity to have more access to fresh
produce. Vendors display their garden vegetables,
fruits, herbs, and homemade jams, jellies and baked
bread in front of the store, which might seem odd
considering some of the items compete with goods
sold in-store.
“I actually grew up in Hiawatha as a youth, but I
moved away and did the city thing,” he explained.
When he moved back, White said he had been away
from Hiawatha for 10 years. The town wasn’t the
same as he remembered, and he knew he had a lot
of learning to do. He got involved in the Hiawatha
Chamber of Commerce, as well as school and other
local activities. He aimed to reacquaint himself with
people in the community and customers of the
store. “If you don’t do that, you might as well not
be in business,” he said, “not only for the reason of
getting to know people, but also for the reasons of
giving back and building on your rural community.
As an ag-based community, it’s important that we
build on what we have.”
White said at first he was skeptical about putting
competition at his front door, but he remained
open-minded. A customer helped him see how
the situation could prove beneficial. “A customer
looked at me and said, ‘You know, you put that
farmers’ market in your parking lot, I’m going to
shop it, and then I’m going to shop your store,’”
he said. “So a light bulb went on at that time.” The
customer was right indeed. The market has created
a social event that White said has made him feel as
though he’s contributing to something greater for
his community. It has even brought new faces into
the store.
If people living in rural communities desire to
sustain that rural community, Procter said it is
important that the grocery store survive, as it is
an anchor business. “These small rural businesses
provide an average of 15 local jobs,” Procter said.
“They provide, on average, 20 percent of local
sales tax revenues. They are the primary source of
healthful food options in a rural community, and
they are consistently one of the main gathering
spots in a rural town. Research has also shown that,
‘As the grocery store goes, so goes other businesses,’
meaning that if the grocery store struggles, other
local businesses struggle as well.”
“The grocery business is a hard business,” White
said. “Profits are almost unattainable sometimes,
but that particular evening, we saw about a 4 to 5
percent increase in sales. I consider that amazing,
because to get a 4 to 5 percent increase in sales is
almost impossible to buy through advertising.”
“I think it’s important for any business person in any
community to be involved in what’s going on, but as
a grocer, in my opinion, it’s even more important,”
White said. “People have to trust their local grocer
and feel that grocer cares about the community.
Otherwise, they’ll go other places to shop.”
David Procter, director of the Center for
Engagement and Community Development at
Kansas State University, works regularly with
grocers through K-State’s Rural Grocery Initiative —
an initiative that helps identify and develop models
to sustain retail food sources in rural areas. He said
the rural grocery business is not only tough, but
it’s competitive. To be successful and compete with
some of the larger food retailers, rural grocers must
be innovative and entrepreneurial.
“The move toward locally grown (food) is catching
on everywhere,” White said. “Eventually, the bigger
markets and bigger players are going to catch on to
this, too. I hope that getting on the ground floor,
and building relationships now, will help maintain us
when that does happen.”
Research led by K-State agricultural economists
Hikaru Peterson, professor, and Hannah Miller,
graduate student, found certain strategies can help
make rural grocery stores more competitive. These
strategies include partnering with other institutional
food buyers such as nursing homes, schools or other
businesses; offering a fresh and locally sourced meat
counter; maintaining a strong sense of customer
service; and partnering with local growers to sell
locally grown produce in the grocery store, as Tim
White has done.
White said he knows food access is necessary to
sustain a community, which could be a reason why
he has spent most of his life in the grocery business.
From an article written by Katie Allen,
Communications Specialist for K-State Research
and Extension
Kansas Alliance for Wellness
5375 SW 7th Street, Topeka KS 66606
[email protected]