Out-migration and the
decline of prosperity in rural communities make them vulnerable
to becoming a “food desert,” a term applied to
neighborhoods that lack grocery stores and a problem for the
inner cities as well as isolated rural areas. It’s ironic that
farmers who grow the nation’s food often end up with
limited access to quality food stores.
St. Francis is located in far Northwest Kansas, only a
few miles from the Colorado border. Since 1980, 12 of the
northwest counties of Kansas have lost more than a quarter of
their population, while the state population has increased by
almost a fifth. Agriculture now makes up only 3 percent of the
gross state product of Kansas, and that proportion is falling,
leading to a decline in small town revenues, tax base,
businesses and services.
(For more on the topic of rural out-migration, read a
review of a new book, Hollowing Out the Middle,
which appeared online in New West Magazine, CLICK HERE.)
Rodney is one native who chose to stay put. His store
is full of memorabilia that celebrates the area’s history,
including old photos of the town. Behind the cash register is an
old phone salvaged from his grandmother’s 1919
farmhouse. He calls it a “conversation piece,” pun
Q. How many
grocery stores were in town when you were growing up?
A. There were two
large ones, and three small neighborhood stores. The town
population consisted of probably 800 more people at that time.
But back then there were no big box stores around where people
would drive out of town to buy groceries and other items. They
bought mostly local.
Q. When did the
Hilltop Market close?
A. It closed in the
mid-1980s. It reopened as a little donut and coffee shop, then it
became a second-hand store and antiques for a while. And then
in November of 2004 it became vacant. From November to
December, I thought about re-opening and I talked to the owner
and he was all for reopening as a grocery store, because his
grandfather ran it for a number of years in the 1960s and 70s. I
remodeled the building and opened it in April of 2005. As a
separate business, I opened the deli and meat market in
Q. What are the
competing with a Walmart that’s only 35 miles away
— and the larger towns that are 90 miles away and fairly
easy to drive to in an afternoon — competing on price; we
can’t buy in large quantities as those stores do, because
we don’t have enough space for the inventory, so the
prices are slightly higher than what you would find at larger
stores. But we think we make it up in service. We have free
delivery within the city limits to anyone in need regardless of
age. You don’t have to be retired. If a person has just left
the hospital, they can call us up and get groceries
Q. I think
that’s an important point: not everyone in a small town
can drive 90 miles for food and supplies.
A. Exactly right, and
as they age they realize that. The population of 65 and older is a
higher percentage here than in most communities.
guessing not too many would be willing to take this on.
A. I would say
that’s right. They don’t want to take the financial
risk or devote the hours. We are open 7 to 7, seven days a week.
I usually get here 45 minutes before we open and then stay 30 to
40 minutes after we close. That’s a 14-hour day.
Q. Are people
A. Yes, they are.
Just his past weekend when it was snowing and the weather was
bad, several came in and said thanks for being open, especially
on Sunday. If somebody needs something before church,
Q. And at the deli?
A. More and more
people do want the natural meats, the good quality choice cuts.
Many refuse to buy any type of meat at Walmart. They just
refuse to do it. We carry fresh local and regional products like
Callicrate Beef, that haven’t traveled so many miles to get