By Pat Melgares, K-State Research and Extension news service


MANHATTAN, Kan. – No one will argue that food is one of human’s most basic needs.


And yet, across rural America, many grocery stores routinely are scratching and clawing their way to survival.


“It is a very tough business,” said Erica Blair, a program manager for K-State Research and Extension’s Rural Grocery Initiative, which was formed in 2007 to support the viability of grocery stores in rural areas.


Blair notes that rural grocers fill a void in areas where affordable, quality food is hard to find, often known as food deserts.


“Rural grocers,” she said, “play an enormous role in addressing food deserts. They are a critical source of affordable, healthy food. Grocery stores can provide healthy foods at a more affordable price than their convenience store counterparts.”


K-State’s Rural Grocery Initiative is bringing together grocers from across the United States when it presents the National Rural Grocery Summit in Wichita on June 20-21. The Summit is held every other year; due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this will be the first year it’s been held in person since 2018.


“One of the things that I have heard grocers say that they enjoy is hearing success stories of other grocery owners,” said Blair, noting that the Summit will include participants from California to New York, and many points in between.


“The issues that rural grocers face in Kansas, are the issues that rural grocers face in rural communities across the country,” she said. “The Summit is a chance to learn from each other and make connections, as well. Grocers are able to speak with other grocers who know what they’re going through and what their challenges are. They have a shared understanding.”


Blair said the agenda includes sessions on alternative ownership models (such as cooperatives); forming partnerships; business transition planning; and funding opportunities.


Among the keynote topics, she added, is a look at a pilot project in North Dakota in which three grocers, a restaurant and a community development  organization have joined forces to purchase foods at wholesale prices.


The full agenda is available online. Early bird registration ends on May 15.


“Grocery stores are anchor institutions for the community,” Blair said. “They provide many economic benefits to the community; a source of jobs, contributing to the tax base and circulating dollars in the community.”


She adds: “What happens when the grocery store closes? It affects other businesses in the town, as well. If you lose your local grocery store, more people are going to be traveling outside of town to get their food – that’s a fundamental need – and when they’re going outside of town, they’re probably going to be picking up other items, as well.”


“It has that effect on other local businesses, and it has that effect on attracting new residents. It’s harder to attract residents when you don’t have a grocery store.”


More information on how K-State is supporting rural grocery owners is available online from the K-State Research and Extension Rural Grocery Initiative.