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1 in 6 Kansans lives in a food desert. Some in central Topeka insist they can build an oasis

Janet Cathcart and Marge Ahrens show the one-acre plot of land where they hope to see a grocery store built.
Dylan Lysen
/
Kansas News Service
Today, this one-acre plot of land in central Topeka is unused. But Janet Cathcart, left, and Marge Ahrens are among local residents working to establish a grocery store here.

A Dillons grocery store closed. Three central Topeka census tracts became federally designated food deserts. Now a local movement aims to fill the gap.

For nine decades, generations of neighbors ran into each other at the corner of Huntoon and Lane streets in central Topeka.

Much like local schools or a public library, the intersection throbbed with the community’s pulse. It was the site of a grocery store.

“I’d see people from the neighborhood … see people from school,” said Janet Cathcart, who grew up in the area and raised her children there. “It was a nice place to just interact.”

But in 2016, Kroger Co. closed the Dillons-branded neighborhood grocery, saying it hadn’t turned a profit since 2004.

When the federal government next updated its list of low-income areas hurting for grocery stores — also known as food deserts — it added three central Topeka census tracts.

And though six years have passed, no independent grocer or major chain has stepped in to fill the gap.

“What has happened to Topeka — and it has happened in a number of other medium and larger cities as well — is that grocery stores are increasingly being concentrated on the periphery,” said Michael Bell, president of the neighborhood improvement association for the city center’s Tennessee Town area.

Now a resident-led movement to restore a full-service grocery is gaining momentum. The vision includes fresh foods, postal and financial services for shoppers, and fair pay for employees.

Organizers say they have new market research showing a grocery store can thrive in the neighborhood, and they’re taking steps to make it happen. They hope to sign a lease soon. And nonprofit foundations are providing funds for the legal and administrative work.

Half a million Kansans live in nearly 140 census tracts with limited or no grocery stores, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says. The vast majority of these low-income tracts are urban areas where residents commonly travel a mile or more to reach the store. Some of the tracts are rural areas without a grocery within 10 miles.

Local dollar stores offer little in the way of fresh or healthy foods, and lean heavily toward high-salt and high-sugar options.

Kroger’s closure of the central Topeka Dillons grocery store affected residents of historically African American Tennessee Town and several adjacent neighborhoods.

The 13,000 people living in the area have an average family income of $31,000 a year. Nearly a third of the households fall below the federal poverty line. About half of residents are people of color, primarily Black and Hispanic.

“Having a full-service grocery store (in your neighborhood) seems to be less tied to the potential number of clients,” Bell said, “and more tied to socioeconomic standing. And part of that, of course … is ethnicity.”

A map shows Shawnee County's food insecurity is worst in the center of Topeka.
This map, produced by the Kansas Health Institute, shows food insecurity rates by zip code. Two of the zip codes affected by losing the grocery store in central Topeka have the county’s highest rate of people struggling to stock their pantries — nearly a third of the population.

Kroger Co. said in an email that its central Topeka market was unsustainable.

“To maintain healthy operations overall … unfortunately decisions have to be reached when stores are not profitable,” the company said, citing the need to keep down prices and pay employees.

The company says it has invested tens of millions of dollars in grocery stores and gas stations across Topeka since 2008, offering jobs and benefiting the local economy.

Putting food on tables

Cathcart and Bell are board members for the Central Topeka Grocery Oasis, a nonprofit group founded by residents of the area’s neighborhoods that want to re-establish a grocery store in Tennessee Town.

“It would give (residents) some independence,” said Cathcart, who lives just a few blocks from where the store closed. “Why shouldn’t the people in this area have access to the same things that everyone else has access to?”

Losing their local Dillons made it harder for those with tight budgets to run everyday errands vital to their health and finances.

The Dillons had been a place to shop for the week’s meals, pick up prescriptions and pay utility bills.

Now, the one quarter of residents without access to cars have to wait until their relatives or friends can offer a lift. Or wait on buses, which takes more time and more trips, since public transport doesn’t offer the luxury of hauling home a car trunk’s worth of groceries.

In this video, Donna Rae Pearson, the history librarian at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library, explains the effects of redlining policies and infrastructure projects that harmed neighborhoods of color and dramatically reduced Black ownership of houses and businesses.

The affected neighborhoods include swaths of zip codes 66603 and 66612, which have the highest poverty rates in Shawnee County.

Compared to the city’s wealthier suburbs to the city’s north, south and west, people in this urban core are four times as likely not to have enough food, according to a new report from the Kansas Health Institute* and commissioned by the Shawnee County Health Department.

The roots of poverty in central Topeka relate to the city’s history.

As in other American cities, white-controlled public and private institutions undermined the accrual of wealth by Black and Hispanic Topekans by throwing up barriers to loans, good-paying jobs, home ownership and business ownership.

In the 1900s, this dealt one blow after another to their growing middle class — including descendants of the Exodusters who settled Tennessee Town — and wiped out the city’s Black-owned business district.

Not waiting around

Regional and national grocery chains, some of which specialize in suburbs with higher incomes where they can sell more expensive foods, have so far shown little interest in central Topeka.

So residents from nine neighborhoods created the Central Topeka Grocery Oasis group in 2018.

Local community groups and foundations awarded grants and offered logistical aid.

The not-for-profit group aims to lease land for a new neighborhood market and raise upward of $5 million to build it.

The group has begun researching co-op and nonprofit business models, and talking informally with food distributors and for-profit grocers.

“We would like anybody who works at our store to earn a living wage,” said Marge Ahrens, another board member who lives just blocks from the closed Dillons.

Central Topeka Grocery Oasis paid business consultants for a study that concluded a new grocery store could turn a profit. The resulting report suggested a 14,000-square-foot premise, about the size of a Walgreens.

The group may soon gain access to enough land for that and a parking lot, just yards away from the former Dillons.

Community health clinic GraceMed owns an unused one-acre lot there. GraceMed also bought the empty grocery store building and now offers medical and dental services there.

The two not-for-profit groups are discussing lease details.

 A USDA map shows areas of Kansas with low incomes and long distances to walk or drive to buy fresh food. The vast majority of the census tracts are urban. A smaller number are rural.
This USDA map shows areas of Kansas with low incomes and long distances to walk or drive to buy fresh food. The vast majority of the census tracts are urban. A smaller number are rural, though those stand out visually because they are geographically larger.

County goals

Several years ago, Shawnee County set goals to fight hunger, reduce the number of local food deserts and make sure children and adults have healthy meals.

Children without this typically suffer poorer health long term and do worse in school.

“Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there had been a lot of groundswell and a lot of momentum,” said Craig Barnes, who leads the agency’s community outreach efforts.

The department commissioned the Kansas Health Institute’s recent deep-dive into local food access.

The report found that the percentage of people without consistent access to meals decreased in the two years before COVID-19 hit.

The most recent statistics, from 2019, show about 12% of Shawnee County residents lack enough food to lead healthy, active lives.

The pandemic paused some of the county health department’s efforts, forcing it to close a satellite office that helped low-income mothers sign up for assistance with food for themselves and their children.

Many Shawnee County residents who qualify for food stamps ($2.38 a meal) and similar help don’t get it.

“One of the big key findings from the report is (that) about half of all people eligible … are signing up,” Barnes said.

*The Kansas Health Institute receives funding from the Kansas Health Foundation, a funder of the Kansas News Service.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen reports on consumer health for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @celia_LJ or email her at celia (at) kcur (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

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