In May 2018, residents of the small town of Moran, Kansas (pop. 558), faced a big decision. The local, independently owned Stubs Market had been up for sale for some time, but no buyer had come forward. There was a very real possibility it would be closed. For years, Stubs served as the only grocery store in this eastern Kansas community and the go-to food destination for all of Allen County.
Life-altering is the only way to describe what the impact would have been had the people of Moran lost the only viable grocery store around. Other than Stubs, the nearest store to buy fresh groceries stood in Iola, some 13 miles away.
That’s when a local nonprofit came to Moran’s aid. The group, called Thrive Allen County, supports rural revitalization and focuses on quality of life. In short order, they hired an expert in food co-ops, who pulled in another nonprofit organization, the Food Co-op Initiative (FCI), for free training and technical assistance in creating a co-op. The good people of Moran took it from there.
United in their cause, teachers, businesspeople, church members, retirees, students and others, signed up dozens of owners for the new co-op, secured financing and opened the doors to a grocery store they could call their own. And name it they did, the Marmaton Market. Nowadays, the store is doing just fine, with ample supplies of fruit, vegetables and other fresh food lining its shelves.
The “Food Desert” Phenomenon
While the local grocery marketplace successfully fought for survival and things are looking up in Moran, that’s not the case in many farm communities now trapped in wide swaths of land known as food deserts. The growing problem of small-town grocery store closures is gripping many towns in rural America. For instance, in 2007 there were more than 200 rural grocery stores in Kansas; since then about a quarter of those rural Kansas communities have lost their stores. It’s estimated that one-third of Kansas’ 105 counties suffer from lack of available grocery stores, affecting some 800,000 people who have to travel 10 miles or more to buy groceries. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that about 5 million people living in rural areas suffer in food deserts.
Co-ops to the Rescue
Rural America, particularly Midwestern states, have a long history of banding together to overcome adversity. In the early days, community members came together to raise barns because many hands were required, especially in areas that were sparsely settled or on the edge of the frontier. Later, townsfolk pooled their money and formed co-ops to ensure that electricity would get to every household.
In that spirit of collectiveness, residents of small towns in places like Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, and Great Scott, Illinois, have come to realize that the only way to save their only local grocery is to adopt the food co-op model, through which they assume control of that grocery. Food co-ops are member-owned groceries that follow certain core principles such as democratic control among members, economic independence and a desire to strive to find a better quality of life for their communities, in large part by offering fresh, quality food locally.
Stuart Reid, executive director of FCI, says that in order to succeed, grocery co-ops have to be championed by local community members who can organize and quickly understand the ins and outs of the grocery business. It’s a daunting challenge for sure, but it can be made a whole lot easier with the FCI’s help.
By reaching out to FCI staff for phone consultations, technical support and materials, residents can get on a solid path toward opening a sustainable co-op grocery. All the services of FCI are available free of charge. Startups may find it necessary to hire consultants for in-depth services as the co-op project progresses, but FCI is always there to answer questions and point people in the right direction.
Rural grocery co-ops are on the rise. It’s vital we continue to hear their success stories, not only in rural towns like Moran but also in communities large and small across America. This is important not only because these innovative new stores provide access to healthy food for those who may otherwise do without, but because co-ops rally people together around a terrific cause. And that kind of can-do civic pride is always good food for thought.
Sarah Tyree directs policy and public affairs for CoBank, a cooperative bank that serves agribusinesses, rural infrastructure providers and Farm Credit Associations throughout the U.S.