Episode 7 - Facing the Facts About Food Insecurity with Erica Blair
Michelle Rathman: Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of The Rural Impact, the place to come if you're curious about connecting the dots between policy and absolutely rural everything. I'm Michelle Rathman and it's really with sincere gratitude to have you join us today for our third episode in our Food for Thought series where we've been tackling the complex matter of food security and food insecurity for millions of rural people across the U.S. But before we get started today, and speaking of being curious would you like to learn about how to amplify the impact of your rural work? Well, if so, then we'd like to have a conversation with you, whether you're a consumer facing business, reaching rural audiences, an organization providing assistance in rural housing, food, education, business, healthcare, helping to increase access to capital, and doing all around amazing work in rural to support rural populations. We have a number of opportunities for you to partner with us.
Now, some upcoming series will focus on the subjects of the very things I just mentioned. So, if you are interested to explore a partnership that meets your goals, please reach out to us very simply at theruralimpact.com. There's an easy link to learn more. And while you're at it, go ahead, locate the channel you like to listen to your podcasts on and just hit that subscribe button. So you'll get your episodes in each series automatically. Okay, with that said, on the subject of partnerships today is my distinct pleasure to shift from focusing on challenges, because remember, we've talked a lot about, for example, assistance programs that urgently need support from Congress and state legislators.
We've talked about strategies for you to become an advocate. We've also talked about tools that are designed to help identify food and grocery store insecure areas based on census track data. And now we'll round out this series by shining a light on partnerships that provide needed infrastructure and guidance to help close those healthy food access gaps.
So, earlier, I had a chance to sit down with Erica Blair, and Erica is an Extension Specialist with Kansas State University, and she happens to be a Program Manager for both the Rural Grocery Initiative and the Kansas Healthy Food Initiative. Now, in these roles Erica supports healthy food retail across the state and nation, the state of Kansas, of course, including support for grocery store ownership models.
We also talked about creative community collaborations, and you're going to even hear her talk a little bit about a school-based grocery store, which I think is very cool. I think you will too. So here now is my rural impact conversation with Erica Blair. Settle in. Let's go.
Michelle Rathman: It is so good to be here today and having this conversation. I just want to say thank you Erica Blair for joining us. People are going to learn all sorts about the work that you do there at Kansas State focused on food security. And you know, as I've said, this is our third episode in the series and we've talked a lot about food insecurity and I'm loving the idea that today we get to flip the switch a little bit and talk about what is it that makes us food secure.
So before we get started, I do want to read something because as I said, you'll hear a little bit later from Erica in just a few moments about the work that they're doing, but I came across, I did a lot of research on this for this series and I came across a document. I want to read it here. That was put out in September of 21, not too long ago grocery store considerations for city leaders.
And I just wanted to read just a little bit of the introduction and I'm skipping forward a bit because as you know, anyone who listens to this podcast and for that we are grateful. I think that we have to tackle these problems at a, you know, in totality and we use the word holistic and whatnot, but whatever it means to you, we have to start looking at our problems our challenges, I should say, from all sides and food security is one of them.
I'll just read you this for just a moment. “In hundreds of neighborhoods across the country, nutritious, affordable, and high quality food is largely missing. Studies that measure food store availability and the availability of healthy foods is nearby. Stores find major disparities in food access by race and income and for low density rural areas, which is what we're talking about.”
It goes on to say very briefly, the presence of stores selling healthy, affordable food makes it possible for neighborhood residents to eat and consume a healthy, a healthful diet. While the grocery store is just one strategy in enhancing access to healthy food, it is perhaps the most powerful and most equitable food system strategy for improving healthy food access. And I don't think you could find a single person who could poke a hole in that story.
Erica Blair: Yeah,
Michelle Rathman: with that said, so let's jump right in, Erica, because the numbers in Kansas, as they are across the U. S. in particular, as I just read for rural areas where healthy food access options are shrinking, it's alarming. So, before we get into the, to the really important details and the work that you're doing, talk to us about the data. You guys do a lot of research there as an institution. What are the numbers in terms of food insecurity? And we talked in our last episode, a little bit about grocery store deserts, just in terms of how to collect the data, but give us kind of an overview, if you will, please.
Erica Blair: Yeah, I'm glad to hear that you had a conversation with USDA Economic Research Service because they've really done really great research on this topic, showing the trends. And so what we're seeing in Kansas and what the Economic Research Services is showing in their data as well, is that as there is an increase in dollar stores, there's an increase in super centers, we're actually seeing a decrease in independent grocery stores and locally owned grocery stores. And so essentially what that means is there are just fewer places for a lot of people to buy food, and for a rural community, when a grocery store closes often, that means they're having to travel a much, much greater distance just to get access to food. So maybe that's 40 miles round trip just to get something as basic as food. Really a huge burden for elderly residents, people who don't have access to transportation, lots of people having to rely on convenience stores or dollar stores that don't have the same variety or quality of healthy food options.
Michelle Rathman: Mm hmm.
Erica Blair: So, yeah, that's just kind of a national trend. In Kansas, we have the Rural Grocery Initiative has done some research on this as well. Between 2008 and 2018, we were tracking grocery store closures, and during that time, one in five grocery stores closed. So that's a really large. And, you know, some of those stores have since reopened, but I think it just points to how tenuous this business can be, and the kind of impact that that has for their communities that they're serving.
Michelle Rathman: It's a domino effect to be sure, because that, I mean, to your point, and don't even get me started on the discount, dollar chains, because I've said before, you cannot find a wholesome, healthy, balanced diet daily and in those kinds of establishments. And as a person who travels around rural a lot I see it from my own eyes.
So, as I said we're connecting the dots here. We've talked a lot about programs and really essential safety net programs that are important because even with a thriving rural grocery store, there has to be a need met for those who require assistance. But if you remove the grocery store component then what?
So, you are a Program Manager for the Kansas Healthy Food Initiative, and also the Rural Grocery Initiative is something that's born out of that program. And I just think it's a model for... this should be everywhere, you know, because when you learn how to do something, well, it should be able to be replicated.
Because the challenges are very similar, no matter where you go with some environment issues that we talked about in previous episodes. So talk a little bit about those programs and then we'll get into the technical aspects of what they fund and then some really great examples of how it's working.
Erica Blair: Sure and that's interesting kind of your point about replicating these programs because we've had people in other states, reach out to us and say, how did you get the Rural Grocery Initiative started? We want to do something similar in our state. So, I guess I'll start with the Rural Grocery Initiative.
So, back in 2006, I want to say there was a unit at Kansas State University that was having listening sessions across Kansas and just asking broadly, you know, asking rural communities, what are the issues that you're facing? What are your top concerns? And the thing that kept coming up again and again and again was, the concern for the viability of their local grocery store. And they really recognized the importance that it had, really considered it to be an anchor institution for their town. They wanted to see what can we do to help retain this business or even attract a grocery store here, open a grocery store here if they didn't have one already.
So it was really out of those conversations, listening sessions that RGI was created. So RGI has been around since about 2007.
Michelle Rathman: Yeah. I, yeah, I read that time. So quite a bit. So you've got your sea, you got your sea legs as they say.
Erica Blair: Yeah. So really since then we have been providing what we call technical assistance or providing informational resources, developing resources, pointing people in the right direction, if we don't have the proper expertise, and so helping existing grocers, grocery stores, as well as communities that want to open grocery stores, and, various educational programming. We have the National Rural Grocery Summit every other year, which we're going to be announcing very soon, which we're really excited about and just kind of helping build connections with grocers. So, yeah, we're doing a lot of that type of work and then with that, we also partner with the Kansas Healthy Food Initiative. And that began in 2017. And so the Kansas Healthy Food Initiative is kind of what's broadly known as a Healthy Food Financing Initiative an H. F. F. I.
Michelle Rathman: Okay.
Erica Blair: And there are programs like this across the country, essentially programs that are financing through retail outlets, specifically in low resource and underserved areas. Some of them are funded by the state. By their state government. Some of them are funded by foundations, which is the case for the Kansas Healthy Food Initiative. There's also the national H. F. F. I. So. it's this broad, you know, it's a type of program in that is meant to help these retail outlets overcome some of those capital barriers.
So, we provide funding in the form of loan grant mixes. We're primarily working with grocery stores, but we also work with farmers markets and even producers that sell to grocery stores, helping them with purchasing equipment or building renovations or building construction that type of thing.
Michelle Rathman: You know, I think it's so interesting because we were talking earlier. I've been to a lot of rural communities and I, someday I need to write kind of a little mini book about my, the food access that I see in rural places. And I, and I won't name the places, but I just, I think about, we say something about critical access hospitals.
If you've seen one critical access hospital, you've seen one. And I think if you've seen one rural, non chain, rural, what, there are no chains in rural, grocery store, you have seen one because you're serving different populations, different economic mix, and so I guess one question I have for you, and it may seem so obvious, but, you know, what have you seen in terms of the prevalence of food insecurity because of a closure of a grocery store?
And you know, I wonder how much I know what happened in the town next to mine, the locally owned in the family for 60 or 70 years, grocery store closed because they could not take the one person left in the family to run. It said, can't do this anymore and left. And we just found out fortunately, or unfortunately, I mean, we do have a national name coming in to take its place, but wasn't the same is people recognizing, to go as very charming name to go in and know everybody's names. So I'm just curious about how much food insecurity has been born out of, you know, it's great to have a locally owned, a family owned, but then what happens when there's no planning?
And I suppose that's where you guys fill in some gaps. provide resources.
Erica Blair: That's a really big issue. And it's really not just in the grocery industry. It's in businesses across the nation, across industries, this issue of business transition planning or succession planning. There are just a lot of business owners who are getting ready for retirement and planning for their transition.
Is not easy. The Small Business Development Center recommends that business owners plan for 5 years before their transition. That's how long it takes. There's a lot of steps to this process.
Michelle Rathman: I believe it.
Erica Blair: So, we've gotten a lot of calls in our office saying from community members who are concerned, for instance, the grocery store is closing or they're planning on closing in a couple of months.
What do we do? And a couple of months is really not enough time. I mean, it. I guess in some cases, it can be done, but it's just not ideal. And when the planning hasn't happened, that's when we see that oftentimes the business will just shut its doors and then all of a sudden, really abruptly, the community doesn't have access to healthy food.
So yeah, it can be very devastating when that happens.
Michelle Rathman: Very similar path to many rural hospitals, know, and it sends communities into a panic. And I see such similarities, you know, it's interesting though, you all have a paper that's hometown grocery store fact sheet. And, I think if when we talk about economic impact for a community, so it's more than, although primarily it is designed to ensure that every person living and wanting to stay in their community and not having to travel long distances, that is primarily the focus, but in this report, and I don't have the date in front of me, but it says that a economic benefits of independently owned retailers return more than three times as much money per dollar of sales to the community than discount chain competitors, 644, 000 to local economies on average of 17 local employee or jobs, 135 million in state and local tax dollars across Kansas.
This is Kansas specific and capture the SNAP and WIC stimulus benefits. There's a lot of compelling reasons to help sustain that model.
Erica Blair: Yes, and when you were referencing the guide that we created earlier in this conversation, you were talking with the considerations for city leaders. The reason why we developed that is because we've seen more and more city leaders, economic developers, reaching out to us as well, because they understand if we don't have a grocery store in town, it's going to be very hard to attract and retain residents.
So that's another impact, not to mention the other ones that you listed off in terms of the economics. But then there's also so many intangible impacts as well that we have seen. We really consider them to be these. critical gathering spaces for a lot of rural communities as well.
Some of these rural communities, we're talking very, very small they may not have a cafe or they may not have a library or, places where people can kind of naturally come together and gather. And a grocery store oftentimes is providing that they'll have seating areas, or they'll have a deli.
There's a, you know, there are other ways that we've seen grocery stores get involved in the community to, like, there's a grocery store in Kansas that has a monthly music night. You know, and so, yeah, just that kind of community engagement and really the care that they, that these grocery store owners have for their community and the responsibility that they feel for their community is,
Michelle Rathman: irreplaceable.
Yeah, you know, you say that and of course my mind is going, gosh, there's so many things we could collaborate on because we always work to create collaboration between the local grocery store and the rural health clinic or the hospital and do like uncapped displays that focus on healthy eating for people to address prediabetes, hypertension, cancer, healthy diets. And I just see so many opportunities because there's such intersections between food and what we ingest in our health. So we should talk at another time, but let me just get back to this, but, because I think it's important for us to understand, Some of the impacts.
So would you mind just kind of I mean your website is filled with examples. One could get lost in reading about them. Those are stories, and could you just give us a snapshot of a few of your you know? You don't have to disclose where or when if you don't if you choose not to but just some of the so that people understand connecting the dots listen.
There's this innovative program meeting a need, collaborating with partners, and we'll talk about partners in a moment. And then you've got someone who's inquisitive, like a mayor or community business leader, and they work with you and then, realizing there are a lot of steps that I want to talk about the process, just give us a snapshot of some of the really aha success stories that come to your mind.
Erica Blair: Yes I will say. I am continually learning and inspired and kind of in awe of what a lot of rural communities are doing because they're being very, very innovative and using the assets that they do have in their community to make this work. We've seen a lot of innovative partnerships. Innovative ownership models for grocery stores. So some of those partnerships, I guess, you know, public private partnerships where maybe there is a grocery store business owner who owns the grocery store and the inventory and all of that. And then the city owns the building and the equipment, and they're partnering where the city is helping to maintain that structure.
You know, we've seen that in various forms, not just with city government, but economic developers and community foundations as well. There's a school owned grocery store in Kansas. You know, lots of several cooperatives in Kansas
Michelle Rathman: so cool.
Erica Blair: So lots of cool innovation happening in the state.
Michelle Rathman: I remember interviewing now you're jogging my memory when I was working on National Rural Health Day and writing the community star stories. I featured a real grocery store initiative in Kansas and I'm trying to remember I'll go through my memory bank and remember what that is. But yeah, I think those are all and you know, if one can do it successfully, others can't. So let's just talk about for our listeners who are curious, and I'm sure there are plenty saying, well, first of all, I think it's important for people to understand if their grocery store is vulnerable. Would you say that's an important first step is for community leaders to understand? The financial viability and the financial health of their local grocery store. But when they do understand that, or the obvious is that they've closed or they've announced their closing for those who are curious about exploring like where to start and what their eligibility is, because I'm sure there's some definite, I won't say hoops, but I'm sure there's some definitive steps that must happen before a project is even allowed to get to the point where there's footing.
Erica Blair: Yeah, I think a good place to start, especially if it's a situation where, like, the grocery store has closed, let's say, or the community is trying to reopen a grocery store is to start by having a conversation with the community. We see that as being really successful or assisting with the future grocery store success to help in the beginning, get buy in for that grocery store. So asking the community, what do you want in a grocery store? You know, would you, what would it take for you to shop at this grocery store and really tailoring to that specific community? Because all communities are different. And, also, just kind of doing your research and seeing, you know, maybe the independent sole grocery store owner is not a viable ownership model anymore in this community.
What are some other ownership models that we could consider, whether it is a cooperative or some form of public private partnership? Who are the, who are some key leaders, key institutions, or organizations in town that want to see this grocery store thrive? Get them together and kind of put together a steering committee and start from there.
So doing your research talking to the community, those are very good places to start, but it is definitely not a sprint. It's a long process, it can take a very long time. Which going back to the issue with business transition planning, the ideal situation would be to have somebody in place to take over the grocery store before any closure happens, because it's just, it can be very, very hard to take a
Michelle Rathman: so hard.
Erica Blair: a store.
Michelle Rathman: It's like cleaning up after a train wreck. I mean, that's a really harsh analogy, but I see it that way. It's interesting that you say that because I mean, in my mind and Erica, I mean, I don't want to like, have you catch you off guard here, but I'm just thinking, and I said this in my previous interview, I think rural health organizations are in a very unique position to share data. So when you, for example, talk about talking with the community and engaging them in conversation about what it is they want, and also in interjecting information about what's required and to, when you think about those community spaces and people to gather, it's wonderful to bring in you know, cafe and things like that.
And also the grocery store being a hub for the number one word in our conversation is healthy food initiative. What could a rural health organizations do to help lead, maybe these conversations because they know the health disparities that are coming in? They can't, you know, they're not going to disclose, but community health needs assessments tell us a lot.
I'm wondering in your work, just thinking about it is a community health needs assessment ever something that you all take a look at when you are evaluating a project, you know.
Erica Blair: Well, yeah, so for the Kansas Healthy Food Initiative for us to work with a project, we have certain criteria. So we want to make sure that the project is committed to healthy foods. But we also are looking at, is this an underserved community? So that could come into place, I'm sure the health assessment and also we always look for community fit. So we're having conversations with people in the community and asking, is there a need for this? How would this impact the broader community? And I think a community health assessment would help make that point,
Provide all that data. So,
Michelle Rathman: yeah.
That's excellent. So, sustainability, we're kind of going down this path. I would love to see the correlation between your work and then what the USDA ERS at food, that food gap access looks like because the programs that you're, that you are providing assistance and funding for, how has that helped Kansas kind of jump off the map as a place where there's less and not more food insecurity but I just wonder about sustainability. So after someone is, receives that initial or an entity, whether it's a collaborative or whatnot, receives that initial nod, that infusion, you know, you're there groundbreaking, everyone's super happy after year one, year two, kind of how long do you monitor?
Is there a mechanism in place to monitor, milestones of success?
Erica Blair: You know, we do go back and check in, I suppose you could say to see how some of those projects are doing. We do what we call deep dive evaluations where we go and talk to the store owner or talk to people in the community, gather information, talk to customers to see, you know, how the project is doing.
But overall, I think, yeah, some of those, some of that sustainability comes back to some of the things that we've already talked about in terms of community support and making sure that there's a lot of engagement with the community on several levels, having strong relationships and buy in. That's really, really key.
And also these stores are, they have a lot of tough competition with dollar stores and super centers. So they really have to make sure that they're standing out in some way and differentiating themselves. So, one way that we've seen that is. Through the products that they offer, like local food, a lot of those larger chains just aren't, they don't have that availability as much as a local grocer could have.
So, yeah, having, those other options or co-locating with other businesses or, providing hot lunches or a deli, some of those, additional offerings have made some of those projects very successful.
Michelle Rathman: Being able to do so to a much earlier point about it being affordable because you and I also talked earlier and I have told this story before, you know, when we go and we are talking about policy here and I think it's important for us to understand how to effectively advocate for access to healthy food.
I work in a lot of rural communities where there's heavy duty tourism. And, you know, major parts of the year and the items on the independent retail grocery store are so darned expensive. It makes it really challenging for people. So I think there's a lot to be said about finding a striking a balance of profitability and affordability which we won't get into.
But the last question I have for you is again, you know, someone has to start the conversation. And at the end of the day, some of the funding, and we didn't really get into that because I know there's a whole rural healthy food financing kind of entity as well, but you know, at the end of the day, people have to be able to advocate for their own community and everything you share with us today is so local.
And so if there's a message to our listeners out there, you know, what would be in your mind, a conversation starter that puts this topic, more at the table, to use a little bit of a, you know, pun there, more at the table for communities, even if you don't hold a position of leadership to advocate for healthier food versus sit back and hope that the problem goes away or gets solved, because we know that's just not going to happen.
It doesn't fix itself. So how can people start the conversation?
Erica Blair: I think by sharing, I think personal stories go a really, really long way. You know, I think that we have plenty of data to back this up. The need for food outlets, healthy food outlets, all of the, you know, economic benefits, all of the health outcomes that can. You'd be either good or bad. You know, good if you have access to healthy produce, but not so good if you only have access to convenience store offerings packaged foods, right?
So the data is there, but I think that telling the story of how this affects you personally goes a really long way. That is the kind of thing that sticks in people's minds, too. So, I guess if I had any advice to share, it would be that make it personal.
Michelle Rathman: That's a great piece of advice and it dovetails off of what we heard from our first series from the folks at Food Research and Action Center, which was, it takes just 11 phone calls. 11 different people. I've clarified that they don't want me calling 11 times, but 11 phone calls to your representatives, your mayor, your, and not to be up in arms, but to say.
This is a challenge. This is my story. How can I help? How can we advance this conversation? Oh my gosh, Erica Blair. I am so grateful to close out this series with you as our informed guest. The work that you're doing is tremendous. We are going to have your links to some of the tools that you've talked about here today on our website when this particular episode drops.
You are welcome to, to share your news and things that are happening with you anytime. So thank you for joining us. It's been wonderful to have you here.
Erica Blair: Thank you. This was a wonderful conversation.
Michelle Rathman: Thank you so much. And for our listeners, I just again want to thank you for joining us for another series of The Rural Impact. We've got a lot of great things coming up.
So as I always say, I encourage you to subscribe. That's important to us. And we really want your feedback as well. And I want to share with you when you reach out to us on social where you can find us very easily at The Rural Impact, share stories with us because we will read about you. We will share your stories.
We'll vet them first, of course, to make sure you're not You know, pulling our leg, but we want to be able to share the good news as well. As well as the challenges opportunities. You know, as I always say, these are not light subjects. Our number one goal is to help enlighten you. And we hope through this conversation and this entire series that we have done that.
I want to just close out by thanking Brea Corsaro, our associate producer. She does a wonderful job working side by side, with me and others and also Sarah Staub, she's creative, our engineer, she does all the graphics and of course to Jonah Mancino for doing such a wonderful job on our original music score that he's done for this podcast, we mean business.
So again, thank you for joining us and we're going to talk to you the next time on a new episode of The Rural Impact. Take good care.