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Grants Aim To Help Rural Kansas Communities Improve Access To Produce

Ashley Booker
Hutchinson News
The Dillons grocery store in St. John closed in February 2016. The community is one of eight across Kansas receiving grants this year to improve access and demand for fresh produce.

Eight rural communities across Kansas will share $120,000 in grants over the next year to find ways to improve access to fresh produce.

Fresh vegetables and fruits can be hard to find in rural Kansas because some grocery stores have closed or are struggling to survive.

“We know that access to a full range of nutritious foods is critical for the health of growing children and their families,” said Billie Hall, Sunflower Foundation president and CEO. “Yet more and more Kansas communities are losing ready access to nutritious foods, with residents facing round-trips of an hour just to buy fresh vegetables. Over time, the consequences of families having less healthy diets will be stark.”

One example of this trend is the central Kansas town of St. John, in Stafford County. The only grocery store in St. John closed last year. Now the nearest full-service food store is 29 miles away.

The Sunflower Foundation is issuing the grants to St. John and other communities to help them determine how to improve local access to fresh food.

But Elizabeth Stewart Burger of the Sunflower Foundation said improving access alone isn’t enough. Part of the job involves increasing demand for healthy produce.

“Especially in two-parent working households, people aren’t cooking the way they used to,” Stewart Burger said. “We’ve heard stories from a grocer who will say, ‘You know, I can put an eggplant on the shelf. No one’s going to buy it, because they don’t how to fix it.’”

Stewart Burger said the grants include resources to help convince people that healthy food is tasty and not impossible to prepare.

“That can be done in more consumer-friendly ways, such as cooking demonstrations, displays that are fun, taste-testing at schools and community events, cooking contests, recipe cards that use the ingredients at the store or in conjunction with what may be at the farmers’ market,” she said.

But rural grocers often don’t have time to manage projects like those when they’re working to keep their doors open. So improving the availability of fruits and vegetables might mean helping grocery stores partner with schools and hospitals to boost purchasing power.

The Rural Grocery Initiative at Kansas State University will provide technical assistance to grant recipients. Sunflower worked with the initiative to identify communities and counties that met the USDA definition of a “food desert” or would meet the definition if a remaining grocery store were to close.

The eight grant recipients are:

  • Western Prairie Food, Farm and Community Alliance, working with the Western Prairie Resource, Conservation and Development District, representing eight counties in northwest Kansas (Cheyenne, Decatur, Logan, Rawlins, Sheridan, Sherman, Thomas and Wallace).
  • GROW Hodgeman, working with the Hodgeman County Economic Resource Development Council.
  • Allen County GROW, working with Thrive Allen County.
  • Harvey County Food and Farm Council, working with Harvey County Health Department.
  • Southern Marion County Healthy Partnerships, working with Peabody Main Street USA.
  • Eat Well Crawford County, working with Crawford County Health Department.
  • Community Enhancement Foundation of Plains.
  • St. John Task Force for Grocery Store Access, working with Stafford County Economic Development.

Bryan Thompson is a reporter for KCUR’s Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio and KMUW covering health, education and politics in Kansas. Follow him on Twitter @KSNewsBryanKansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to kcur.org.

Editor’s note: The Sunflower Foundation provides funding for the Kansas News Service.

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