Published December 15th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
It’s around noon on a recent Saturday, and the local grocery store is all but empty of customers.
The grocer in question is The Merc Co-op in downtown Kansas City, Kansas, a member-owned enterprise spun off in 2020 from a venerable Lawrence store well known for its organic produce, exotic brands and hippie vibe. (Full disclosure: This reporter’s wife works in the Lawrence store.)
The Kansas City outpost is different. The produce section is just a few feet inside the front entrance, yes, and it is smaller than a typical store’s, but the shelves are packed with familiar brand names and affordable foods: Heinz ketchup, Bush’s beans, a 10-pack of pork chops for $10, that sort of thing.
Before The Merc opened, listening sessions were held to learn what residents wanted and what they were willing to pay, to make the new store responsive to the needs of its potential customers. This is the result.
“We’re traditionally seen as a health food store and oftentimes that’s a higher-price perception,” says Valerie Taylor, marketing manager for The Merc. “We needed to learn what it meant to be a downtown KCK resident.”
Outside in the parking lot, there is a bit more activity going on – a farmers market has set up, with even more produce available from local vendors. One local woman taking it all in, Maria Jaraleño, says in Spanish that she is glad for the store’s arrival.
“It’s better, because the food is fresh,” she says through an interpreter.
Another way The Merc is different from most grocery stores: It is here in KCK thanks to the efforts of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas. In 2019, local officials reported there were 18 designated “food deserts” in the county – where roughly 27,000 residents had no easy access to fresh produce and affordable groceries. The Unified Government owns the property, paid for the building and signed The Merc to a three-year contract.
“Our mission is to provide access to healthy foods,” Taylor says.
By the time the store opened in August 2020, though, another significant challenge had presented itself: COVID-19. The nearby office and hospital workers who had been expected to drop in and help sustain the store’s finances were suddenly absent, mostly working from home. The Merc may be cooperatively owned and working with government support, but it’s not a nonprofit – at the end of the day, the store still has to make money.
“Just in general it’s been a challenge,” Taylor acknowledges.
But The Merc isn’t trying to irrigate KCK’s food deserts all by itself. A block down the street, Catholic Charities operates a food pantry most weekdays. A few minutes’ drive away, more food is distributed to local residents at New Seasons Christian Church. Nearby, the Juniper Gardens Training Farm and the Somali Bantu Community Garden offer space for refugees to grow fruits and vegetables for their families and neighbors. Soon, Dotte Mobile Grocer is expected to start providing affordable food at 15 locations across the community.
Two-plus miles to the south in Armourdale is the Cross-Lines Community Market, an effort to transform the traditional hunger-fighting food pantry into a grocery store experience that people will find inviting, according to The Kansas City Beacon, which reported on the effort this past summer.
Caroline Harries is associate director of the Healthy Food Access program at The Food Trust, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that fights food deserts across the country. The kind of approach seen in KCK – listen to the community, try multiple methods to get healthy food to residents – is one she favors. Building one big grocery store is “just a piece of the puzzle,” she says.
Which leads to a big question being tackled right now, a few hours southwest of KC: How will Wichita solve the increasingly urgent puzzle posed by its own urban food deserts?
The July closure of Wichita’s last Save A Lot grocery store shocked the Black community that it largely served – after all, the store itself had opened in 2006 as a response to the food desert problem, lured with tax incentives after the nearest Dillons closed in 1997. (The neighborhood was also once home to an IGA, as well as a local grocery store owned by the father of NFL running back Barry Sanders.) The newest closure gave fresh life to a long-running conversation about how to help residents of the city’s poorer neighborhoods survive and thrive.
“It (the Save A Lot) wasn’t the best-managed store,” says the Rev. Broderick Huggins, of the nearby St. James Missionary Baptist Church. But its closure, he says, exacerbated an existing problem of getting fresh veggies and other affordable food in Black neighborhoods, a problem that’s hardly limited to Wichita. Without the Save A Lot, he says, many of his parishioners “have to get their relatives, their grandchildren, their children, Uber and public transportation,” to get groceries. “There are a few agencies that take seniors to those places, but at the end of the day the closure of the store … is emblematic of the trend across the country.”
Larry Burks, president of the Wichita branch of the NAACP, agrees.
“Just from the very outset, the African American community – specifically in northeast Wichita – has always had a problem with not having the right kind of facilities to meet the needs of the residents there,” Burks says. “Our concern really is for people of the lower-income spectrum – the elderly, and a lot of people who don’t have cars – and it’s a problem for them to go and get the kinds of things that are needed for their families. We’ve been struggling with it for a long time.”
Indeed, a 2013 report by the city’s Health & Wellness Coalition estimated that a quarter of the city’s population lived in neighborhoods with limited access to groceries. (The federal government defines urban food deserts as low-income areas where a significant portion of the population lives more than a half-mile from the nearest supermarket, supercenter or large grocery store.) The issue has been persistent enough that by coincidence Wichita and Sedgwick County officials received a presentation from the coalition on a proposed “food system master plan” – which includes provisions to address the city’s underserved areas – on the same day the Save A Lot news broke.
“There are folks throughout Wichita who have been shaken up by this,” Mayor Brandon Whipple says of the store’s closure. “Our neighbors should be able to have access to fresh food and fresh produce without too high of a burden.”
In Wichita and elsewhere, the problem has been propelled by grocery industry trends. Fewer, bigger corporate-owned supermarkets and big box supercenters such as Walmart, Target and Kroger (which operates Dillons stores in Kansas) have become the norm. The smaller neighborhood stores of yore have all but disappeared, often leaving behind convenience stores, dollar stores and small shops that generally charge higher prices for a gallon of milk and often have little or no fresh produce on hand.
The result has been particularly hard on minority neighborhoods. In 2020, an analysis conducted for CNN found that in the 50 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, 17.7% of predominantly Black neighborhoods had limited access to supermarkets. For white neighborhoods, the number was 7.6%.
Nozella Brown, director of Community Vitality at K-State Research and Extension’s Wyandotte County office, has spent much of the last two decades working on food access issues in KCK. She realized early on that the problem wouldn’t be solved by trying to lure conventional grocery stores back to poor and minority neighborhoods in her city.
“They (corporations) use this particular model to determine how viable a grocery store is going to be in a particular community. Based on that model, we would never be a good fit,” she says. “That was a shocker for us – we have all these residents here, everybody needs food.”
“‘Food apartheid’ is a term we use quite a bit,” adds Kolia Souza, a former researcher at K-State’s Center for Engagement and Community Development who now works at Michigan State’s Center for Regional Food Systems. “(Food apartheid) looks at some of the systemic structures that lend themselves to whether or not a community is vital.”
Wichita’s experience bears that out, and also illustrates the health consequences of these forces. In 2019, KAKE-TV’s Pilar Pedraza found that the city’s New Deal-era redlining maps – which enforced segregation by making it harder to get loans to buy and build homes in Black neighborhoods – corresponded closely to the racial makeup of those same neighborhoods today. And those neighborhoods, she found, had higher rates of arthritis, diabetes, high cholesterol and heart disease – illnesses born, in part, of insufficient access to healthy food. That’s fairly typical: Studies have shown that residents of food deserts have higher rates of “adverse cardiological outcomes” and other diet-related diseases.
Which leaves Wichita officials in a bind. Attracting new grocery stores will be tough, given the industry’s trends, but residents of underserved neighborhoods still need to eat – and they deserve healthy food.
“I know it’s a very difficult task to have companies come into town to put these facilities there,” says Burks. But he adds: “We can’t continue to exist that way. We have the right to have those types of facilities there. It’s a quality of life issue.”
The Food Trust started in 1992 to address a chronic problem: Too many Philadelphia residents couldn’t easily buy healthy fruits and vegetables. The nonprofit started addressing the issue with a farmers market at one of the city’s public housing projects. Backed by state funding, the agency’s efforts to expand food access include bringing supermarkets to neighborhoods that lack them, helping stock corner stores with veggies and whole-grain products, supporting other farmers markets across the city and even providing cooking classes at local community centers to help adults learn how to prepare and enjoy healthier foods.
“We believe that communities thrive with multiple points of access,” says Harries, the Food Trust executive. But the process, she says, is driven by the residents of the communities her agency serves. That requires a lot of listening, or it’s possible for well-intentioned projects to fall short of their desired impact. “We really lean in on community perspective,” she says. “It’s important to let communities lead on what they need and what they want.”
The Food Trust has also taken its expertise far beyond Philadelphia, to cities and states nationwide – including in Kansas, where it provides strategic guidance to the Kansas Healthy Foods Initiative, which addresses both urban and rural food deserts across the state. (The program has also partnered with the Kansas Health Foundation, which provides core funding for the Kansas Leadership Center, publisher of The Journal.) According to the initiative, as many as 800,000 Kansans don’t have access to healthy food within a reasonable distance of their home.
Food deserts are prevalent across the state, says Rial Carver, a program manager for the initiative.
The urban projects that the Healthy Foods Initiative has funded hint at the variety of methods that might be used to attack Wichita’s particular challenges: A “post-harvest facility” for Teck Farms, a six-acre urban farm in Hutchinson that provides produce to local grocery stores, a strategic development grant to help the KCK Farmers Market purchase equipment and develop marketing plans, and a grant to help Topeka’s Supermart El Torito, a Hispanic grocery store, open its doors in 2018. “We’re building the capacity for healthy food in those areas,” Carver says. “We’re really focused at doing that at the retail level.”
There is a great need in Wichita for improved access, she says – but also opportunity. “I think what you’re going to see are innovative models. When a market doesn’t serve a community, that’s when you see creativity.”
She notes that Wichitans have been applying that creativity to the food deserts issue for years. In 2014, Donna Pearson McClish started Common Ground Producers and Growers Inc., a mobile market that now provides produce from local farmers to more than 30 senior centers and low-income housing units across Wichita and Sedgwick County. The closing of Save A Lot means there is more demand than ever for Common Ground’s services.
“The problem is huge,” McClish said in a July video conference held by NetWorked Partnership for Community Investment. “We’re looking now at a greater need than we ever could have imagined when we started this process.” She added: “We’ve got the system in place; now we’re looking for the funding to expand what we already do.”
Talk to experts and observers, and they’ll point to similarly creative efforts in other cities as possible examples for Wichita. In Detroit, urban farms are an increasingly prominent part of the city landscape – and activists have pulled together more than 1,000 member-owners to help start a cooperative grocery store much like The Merc.
In Baltimore, Loyola University Maryland is backing the FreshCrate program to put fruits and vegetables in corner stores, and it distributes coupons so residents can buy the food cheaply. In Louisville, Kentucky, the “Fresh Stop Markets” program bags up local produce biweekly during the growing season – in the style of subscription “farm shares,” sometimes known as community supported agriculture or CSAs – and sells them at a sliding scale: $6 a bag for people receiving SNAP benefits, $12 for other low-income buyers and $25 for most other people, with everybody getting the same produce regardless of what they pay. In many cases, cities circumvent the grocery industry by connecting local farmers to local consumers.
Getting community input is critical to the success of any effort. Souza says that what works in those cities might or might not work in Wichita. “It has to fit in the context,” she says of possible solutions. Despite the need, fixing a food desert is not a “build it and they will come” situation – people have particular food preferences as well as varying budgets. “That’s why it makes it all the more important you are informed about the context that you’re trying to do a food supply in,” she says.
Brown, the K-State Research and Extension official, credits the Unified Government and The Merc with doing the kind of outreach that Souza describes.
“The positive here, although it wasn’t perfect – there are people who aren’t satisfied – is that the Unified Government really tried to listen to people, The Merc tried to listen to people,” she says. “Things weren’t done behind closed doors.”
Getting to this point was a challenge, though. When Wyandotte County went looking to bring a store to Kansas City, “they basically courted every single conventional store in the area, and they all said no,” says The Merc’s Taylor. “The sales were going to be too low, the cost was going to be too high, not a high return on investment for conventional stores. Bringing The Merc to town was a Hail Mary,” she says. It cost the county an estimated $7 million to build the 14,000-square-foot store – on land it already owned – and even at that, the effort might not work out. The store celebrated its first anniversary at the end of July; it has two more years on its original contract.
“We’re keeping our eye on it, so that when it’s time to discuss extending it beyond those three years, we’ll see if it’s feasible,” Taylor says, but adds: “We’re not a nonprofit, we are a business, and we owe it to our 8,600-plus member-owners to run a successful business.”
But The Merc isn’t the only answer to the challenge, Brown says. “For us, I can only say what we’ve found is it has to be multilayered – gardens, farmers markets, as many ways as we could to get food into those (underserved) areas,” she says. As for the future: “We still don’t know. This is still an experiment yet.”
Wichita’s Whipple is also ready to do some creative thinking. In the short term, he’s looking at copying from a Baltimore program that distributes fresh food to residents at neighborhood community centers. “What if we bought some of the big industrialized refrigerators – then you have people pick up a phone to make an order, or use an app,” he says.
In the longer term, he has come to believe that Wichita can’t rely just on big corporate grocery chains to serve all the city’s residents. Save A Lot’s property, he says, is owned by an out-of-state developer. The city used tax incentives to bring the store to town, but that wasn’t enough to get it to stay. “Somebody who lives in (Florida) is making decisions that impact Wichita,” he says.
So now he’s hoping the future will be more oriented to local stores, with local ownership – and he thinks that’s where city government should put its efforts. “There’s always limits to what government can accomplish,” he says. “What this teaches us is we should be more conscious of where we can target incentives. What if we used different tools in our eco devo toolbox to grow local grocery stores?”
Whether that will work is unclear. “Any time you have change,” Whipple says, “you also have opportunity.”
The NAACP’s Burks understands the challenges involved in filling the hole Save A Lot left behind, but he is also impatient. “It should be on the front burner for everyone who cares about communities,” he says.
He adds: “This is a priority for all of us, for the community. It’s something that’s a valid need.
It’s not something we’re going to stop talking about and discussing until we get it.”
Joel Mathis is a freelance writer who lives in Lawrence, Kansas.