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Hunger Pains Hitting Hard in Rural America Grocery Store Shortages and Inflation Fuel Food Insecurity

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Above image credit: Refrigerated trucks serve as mobile food pantries and help food banks like Second Harvest get fresh food to more communities in Kansas and Missouri. (Cami Koons | Flatland)
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10 minute read

At a church parking lot in the small town of Tonganoxie, Kansas, a line of cars wrapped around the Second Harvest mobile food pantry truck.

Drivers in most of the cars picked up food for several families.

In an area without public transportation and a dispersed population, getting to the grocery store, or even to a food pantry, can be a challenge.

Darcey Vogel pulled through the line, and volunteers loaded boxes of cantaloupe, carrots and ham into her car. She was picking up food for four families, enough to feed all of her children and grandchildren.

The mobile food pantry only comes once a month to her town, and for the past couple of months, she’s pulled through, opened the hatch of her vehicle and collected food to help out the extended family.

When Flatland recently looked at food insecurity in the metro, advocates talked about increasing the diversity of food options and giving those in need more choices. In rural communities, though, it seems the focus is on increasing access and ensuring that folks have at least a couple of places to find healthy food.

According to Feeding America, rural counties account for 87% of the counties with the highest rates of food insecurity in the nation. It estimates around 2.2 million rural households face hunger.

A lack of jobs, transportation and affordable groceries all contribute to the difficulties of rural food insecurity.

Volunteers fill the backs of cars with fresh food at the Tonganoxie mobile pantry. Most cars pick up for more than one family.
Volunteers fill the backs of cars with fresh food at the Tonganoxie mobile pantry. Most cars pick up for more than one family. (Cami Koons | Flatland)

Getting to the Food

Vogel knows that for her kin, and many others in town, it’s not easy getting to the grocery store. When they do make it there, it’s a pricey trip.

“I feel that it’s not easy for a lot of people,” Vogel said. “I’m appreciative of the market here, but their prices are high.”

Prices are often higher at small-town grocery stores. But recent inflation spikes have made it even more expensive to keep the cabinets stocked.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the price of groceries rose almost 6.5% in the past year. That’s a sharp increase from recent annual inflation of 1.5%.

Inflation is hitting everyone harder right now, and even harder on those who must spend more of their income on necessities such as food. That’s why Tim Smith, a volunteer at the mobile pantry, said it’s especially important for the pantry to be open to anyone.

This means there are no questions about income levels or required paperwork. If someone shows up, they get food.

“I recognized the fact that there’s a need, just by the number of cars that are here each month,” Smith said. “(Some months) the whole parking lot will be full before the truck gets here.”

That day the pantry served enough food for 212 families.

The mobile food pantry visits most towns once a month. Those who come through are handed a sheet with upcoming pantry dates in surrounding towns.
The mobile food pantry visits most towns once a month. Those who come through are handed a sheet with upcoming pantry dates in surrounding towns. (Cami Koons | Flatland)

The mobile food pantry started almost five years ago as a way to better serve the 19 counties covered by Second Harvest Community Food Bank. Chad Higdon, chief executive officer of Second Harvest, said distance is one of the biggest barriers to food access in the more rural counties that the food bank serves.

When he first started at the food bank, some areas had only one pantry serving the entire county.

“There would be places in that community where you might have to travel 40 miles round trip just to get access to a pantry,” Higdon said. “So if you have challenges just purchasing and accessing food, just maintaining transportation and means to get there can also be a challenge.”

The big refrigerated trucks, which serve as mobile food pantries, have been successful in reaching more areas and shortening the distance folks have to travel in order to get food.

“It’s really access to healthy, nutritious food, and families struggling with food insecurity,” Higdon said. “So just trying to get to where people are and to help them (and) make it easier for individuals to access the resources that we have.”

Normally, a food bank rescues food and distributes it to pantries in its region. Higdon said it was becoming difficult to distribute fresh produce to pantries that didn’t have refrigeration, nor the means to purchase the necessary large-scale refrigerators.

The mobile pantry serves as the solution.

“We’re really proud of what we’ve done in terms of getting access to more produce and trying to get healthier foods to individuals,” Higdon said.

When it comes to running a food bank, Higdon said it’s always about looking toward the future, and looking for ways to be better.

A lot of the time, this means finding examples in other food banks around the nation, but also it means looking at local needs. Everything from transportation to job shortages to high food prices are things that can cause folks to be in need of support.

“There’s just some challenges that you look ahead at what’s coming, how long some of this is going to last with food costs and some of those kinds of things, to really continue to meet the need for families that are struggling,” Higdon said.

Why Does It Happen?

In Second Harvest’s coverage area, a lot of factors contribute to food insecurity.

It can be difficult to find a job that’s accessible in rural areas. Without reliable transportation, it’s simply not possible to commute. Higdon said this is a big issue he sees, but far from the only hardship.

“There’s a lot of factors that come into play, and it’s hard to pinpoint the top two or three, because for every family it’s unique, and every individual is different,” Higdon said. “We really do try to not focus so much on why people need help, but just understanding our role that we are here to help.”

While Higdon works on the immediate solutions, Miranda Miller-Klugesherz with Kansas Food Action Network looks for the faults in a community’s food system that caused food insecurity in the first place.

Kansas Food Action Network is an initiative of food, farm and policy councils across the state.

These councils started in 2010 to support a community’s action toward local food systems. Since then, the number of councils across the state has grown. Today, Kansas rivals California and Michigan for the highest number of councils. 

Miranda Miller-Klugesherz is the director of Kansas Food Action Network.
Miranda Miller-Klugesherz is the director of Kansas Food Action Network. (Contributed)

“Roughly about 76% of Kansans have a local council that represents their food system interests at the local or county level,” Miller-Klugesherz said. “So Kansas is consistently looked to as a model for how (to) make grassroots food systems work.”

The councils help to inform any policies or practices in place at any point in their local food system. Miller-Klugesherz explained that it means everything from how it’s grown, where the food goes, and how it’s disposed of.

“When we talk about a food system, we need all of these different components to work well together in order to adequately and equitably feed our communities,” Miller-Klugesherz said.

Most of the time, the councils look like an advisory board to the local government, with the goal of communicating for and with the community to ensure the food system policies in place are properly taking care of folks.

For example, a council might try to increase the number of bags someone can bring on public transportation, or change traffic patterns to make a grocery store more accessible.

Food and farm councils across the state of Kansas help to ensure food systems in a community are equitable and accessible.
Food and farm councils across the state of Kansas help to ensure food systems in a community are equitable and accessible. (Courtesy | Kansas Food Action Network).

It could also work to challenge statewide policies.

This year, the high Kansas food tax drew a lot of attention. But Miller-Klugesherz said it’s been an issue food policy councils have been trying to change for years.

Across the state, folks can expect to pay an average of 6.5% sales tax on the food they bought.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly took up the issue with her “Axe the Food Tax” plan in November of last year and just recently pushed the issue again in her State of the State address.

“The bill that’s just been introduced by Governor Kelly is projected to save the average family of four in Kansas about $500 a year, which if you’re living at or below the poverty line is life changing,” Miller-Klugesherz said.

Eliminating or even minimizing the Kansas food tax wouldn’t only benefit those at the poverty line, but it helps out any family who has to favor cost over nutritional benefit.

“Families who prioritized cost over nutrition in the past may be able to make the healthy choice,” Miller-Klugesherz said. “It suddenly becomes an easier and more affordable and more accessible (choice).

In her line of work, Miller-Klugesherz fights for the notion that food is a right. Rarely does anyone argue this point, but the line gets fuzzy when she talks about the quality of food folks have a right to.

“When we talk about food as a right versus food as a privilege, the question of privilege doesn’t come in until we talk about health or healthy food,” Miller-Klugesherz said. “Really what it comes down to is (that) everyone has the right to food that is going to benefit their body.”

For example, folks might have access to affordable food via the convenience store or the dollar shop in town. But these retailers rarely sell fresh produce.

What Happens Without a Grocery Store in Town?

Higdon said in some of the counties Second Harvest serves, there might be only a handful of grocery stores in a county serving 10 or more communities.

In 2007, a group of Kansans recognized the dwindling number of rural grocery stores and started the Rural Grocery Initiative. Today, the group continues to support new and sustaining grocery stores in rural areas across the state.

The initiative is based in and mostly serves the state of Kansas. But Rial Carver, the program leader, said the challenges are universal.

“The issue of rural communities and rural grocery stores and rural food access is not unique to Kansas,” Carver said.  It’s something that is challenging for communities across the country.”

The grocery business already is a tough industry to turn a profit in, but at rural level, it’s even harder.

To be profitable, most grocers buy in bulk and then rely on a high volume of sales. A grocery store serving a small population of only 5,000 people has to buy smaller quantities of a product, and sell it at a higher price than the big grocery store does, to turn a profit.

“That is kind of inherently a challenge for rural communities that just have a smaller service area and may not be selling nearly the volume that some of the larger supermarket chains and other stores in urban centers are able to capitalize on,” Carver said.

Because rural grocers are further out of the way, they usually face higher distribution costs and fewer deliveries. The higher costs upfront mean the store usually has to increase its retail pricing to keep up.

As more people worked from home and maybe weren’t commuting to bigger cities, Carver said rural grocers saw an increase in patronage. This allowed the smaller stores to have more competitive pricing, overall, a positive trend for smaller towns.

Of course, that wasn’t across the board. Carver said there are still federal and local efforts in place to help level the playing field between small grocers and the big brand competitors.

In some rural towns, the grocery store might be the only place offering Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, and it’s even more likely to be the only spot in town selling fresh produce.

Food Desert

A 10-mile radius around the town of Tonganoxie shows just three locations to purchase food–only one of which offers fresh produce. Many rural areas face similar situations.
A 10-mile radius around the town of Tonganoxie shows just three locations to purchase food–only one of which offers fresh produce. Many rural areas face similar situations. (Source: USDA Food and Nutrition Service)

While the prices at the rural shop may be a bit higher, these stores still play a vital role for those enrolled in assistance programs. Many of the grocery stores and farmers’ markets are encouraged to offer Double Up Food Bucks to help stretch the SNAP dollars a little further each month.

When a grocery store closes in a rural area, Carver said it makes it harder for everyone to access healthy foods, but it affects vulnerable populations even more.

“Low income residents who may not have the time to drive out of town for groceries, (or) may not have the money to drive out of town for groceries” are most affected, Carver said. “It also affects the older residents in the community who maybe shouldn’t be driving a further distance to the grocery store.”

Recently, the initiative learned from a statewide survey that 40% of rural grocers plan to retire in the next decade. The initiative has developed plans to help ensure that these grocery stores won’t disappear as their proprietors exit the industry.

Rural Grocery Initiative works in conjunction with Kansas Healthy Food Initiative to increase access to healthy food in underserved areas of the state. Carver said this could involve sharing information about stocking healthy food in town, or helping to fund better facilities, or erecting a grocery store in an underserved town.

Not only can a grocery store help provide food for a town, but it can also help to stimulate its economy by providing jobs, paying taxes, paying for utilities and being a gathering place.

The other epicenter of a rural town is usually the school district. Miller-Klugesherz said the schools play a large role in helping to distribute food and monitor hunger in the community through school lunch and BackPack programs.

Since the start of the pandemic, Miller-Klugesherz said the state of Kansas has seen child food insecurity rates increase from 13.6% to 28%.

Without a BackPack program sending extra food home at the end of the week, a lot of children wouldn’t have anything to eat between lunch at school on Friday and breakfast at school on Monday.

This is also why food councils across the state run summer feeding programs, to ensure the kids who rely on school meals are still able to eat, even when school is not in session.

“You can only imagine how important they are during the school year. It becomes twice as important during the summer when kids are out and active and parents are working,” Miller-Klugesherz explained. “Suddenly you’ve got your kids home, and you’re only used to providing one meal a day, if that, and suddenly those double or triple and that’s a huge cost burden on families.”

Not having access to something as basic as healthy food is hard, regardless of where you’re at. Miller-Klugesherz said it’s a “great equalizer” between regions, class and cultures.

Add a global pandemic and spiking inflation and more people find themselves in need of assistance than ever.

“The COVID 19 pandemic not only brought food systems issues to the forefront, but it has also sent a lot of people into food insecurity who have never experienced it before,” Miller-Klugesherz said. “People who had never had no idea how to apply for SNAP or where their local food pantry was suddenly found themselves in dire need of using them.”

It brought to many people’s attention the lack of resources in their small towns.

Rural areas often find themselves in a food desert, an area without sufficient access to food. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, someone lives in a rural food desert if they are more than 10 miles from a grocery store.

Miller-Klugesherz, however, disagrees with the commonly used term. To her, it implies that the phenomenon is naturally occurring, when truthfully, it’s a problem with a region’s food systems.

“Where food is, and more importantly, where food isn’t, is a political decision,” Miller-Klugesherz said. “It is a political thing that needs to be fixed by political decisions.”

Cami Koons covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America. The work of our Report for America corps members is made possible, in part, through the generous support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

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