Planting a grocery store in a food desert
It only took a few hours for Onaga to turn into a food desert.
When this northeast Kansas town’s only grocery store burned down last December, its 700 residents suddenly faced a 25-mile trip for fresh food.
"You're baking, or fixing something and you need something. Well, you can't just run down to the store and get it," said 86-year-old Althea Sender, who lives alone and doesn’t drive long distances.
She used to go the grocery store every few days to pick up what she needed. Now, Sender makes a lot of lists and waits to ride to the store with her daughter, or travels on a weekly van sent by Potawatamie County to take the towns' elderly and disabled to the grocery store in St. Mary's, 30 miles away.
Onaga adjusted in other ways as well. The local restaurant started carrying a few extra products, and the convenience store at the gas station expanded its offerings.
So add Onaga to the list, right? Just another rural food desert – where residents live more than 10 miles away from anywhere that sells groceries (in urban areas the distance is one mile). In the last three years, Kansas alone has lost more than one-third of its small-town grocery stores.
But Onaga had other ideas.
Dan Peters, vice president of the local branch of Morrill & Janes Bank, said the grocery store was the anchor of the town’s business district — and its loss was felt immediately.
"People now (think), 'I have to drive and get my groceries . . . so instead of coming to the local hardware store I’ll just stop at Home Depot or some hardware store out of town while I’m there,'" Peters said.
And without a grocery store, he said, it’s hard to keep residents.
"When you start losing population, you start losing the ability to keep your infrastructure in town going," Peters said. "Property valuations go down and it just snowballs until what’s left of the town? There’s not much there."
But the owners of the previous grocery store decided not to rebuild and town officials couldn’t find anyone interested in investing in a new grocery store — until Pam Budenbender came along.
Budenbender and her husband own businesses in Kansas City, but they spend their weekends on a farm outside of Onaga.
"I had always said it was my retirement plan," Budenbender said. "I was going to go into the grocery business."
She just hadn't planned on opening the store so soon.
"It's very expensive to undertake from the ground up," Budenbender said. "And, if it had not been for Morrill & Janes Bank and their support . . . helping me negotiate the deal with the city, I don't know that I would have wanted to take on the entire project."
Peters and county officials helped Budenbender put together a package of low-interest rural development loans. But it wasn’t enough to cover costs, so the Onaga City Council decided to kick in $375,000 towards the new building.
Other rural towns in the Midwest also have come up with creative ways to finance new stores.
Some have opened them as non-profits. In others, residents buy shares in the stores. There are a few places where high school students are taking charge.
Gary Holthaus, Onaga’s mayor, said the new store is an investment in the future.
"I feel you need to do those things in rural communities if you want to survive," Holthaus said. "You can’t just ignore the issue and say it’ll be all right. It won’t be."
Onaga businesses are counting on the grocery store to bring customers back, and maybe even draw in people from the rest of the region.
The new 6,000-foot store in Onaga is set to open Dec. 1.
"I think it didn’t really become real to me until today when the food started going on the shelves," Budenbender said on a day in mid-November.
But she worries that Onagans may have gotten used to shopping far from home in the past year. So to introduce the new store to the community, she plans to raffle off free hams and ice cream during the opening weekend.
Onaga resident Althea Fordham said she'll be waiting out front on opening day.
"Onaga needs all the help it can get," Fordham said.