In an effort to improve rural eating habits, the Sunflower Foundation recently approved a statewide $120,000 pilot project focused on community-based strategies to address food access needs in rural areas.
The grant money is being distributed to eight grantees including the Western Prairie Food, Farm & Community Alliance, which consists of the eight northwestern Kansas counties of Cheyenne, Decatur, Logan, Rawlins, Sheridan, Sherman, Thomas and Wallace; the GROW Hodgeman, focused on the southwestern Kansas communities of Jetmore and Hanston in Hodgeman County; and the Community Enhancement Foundation of Plains, focusing on Plains in Meade County.
The other communities receiving grant funds are located in Allen, Harvey, Marion, Crawford and Stafford counties.
According to a Jan. 26 news release from the Sunflower Foundation, the pilot is called Project HERO – Healthy Eating: Rural Opportunities and will provide grants to the communities to provide community teams with the resources and technical assistance needed to explore and develop sustainable strategies for increasing access to healthy foods.
“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.”
Sunflower has also partnered with Kansas State University’s Rural Grocery Initiative (RGI) to provide ongoing technical assistance to communities. At the end of the 12-month pilot, RGI will issue a report and resource guide based on lessons learned in each community.
RGI has been working across the state since 2007 to improve community access to healthy foods as well as to establish and strengthen rural food retail, said Dr. David Procter, Director of the Center for Engagement and Community Development, of which RGI is part, at K-State.
Working with RGI, Sunflower identified multiple communities and counties that either met the USDA definition of a “food desert,“ or would meet the definition if a remaining grocery store were to close. As part of the invitation to apply, each community group was asked to assemble a leadership team representing a wide array of stakeholders like local grocers, producers, schools, churches, and health professionals, if one didn’t already exist. The planning projects are intended to set the stage for successful implementation with a two-pronged approach: assessing and studying technical data for long-term feasibility, while also gathering community input to foster local buy-in.
In some communities, this means transitioning a struggling grocery store into a non-profit co-op model, or boosting the store’s revenue by connecting purchasing to the school and hospital. Other communities are focusing on the local food systems and what it takes to actually get fresh produce into a grocery store or “micro-markets” for towns without stores.