In Kansas, a return to holistic, locally grown food was only natural for store owner Tim White, who owns and manages Hiawatha Thiftway. He partners with the local farmers’ market to bring locally grown foods into his store.

“That’s the relationship I’ve tried to build with the producers,” White said. “They come to the market to sell their goods, and they hope they sell out. If they don’t, I’m here to help them out. I want to sell that product on my shelves, too, and give people who can’t make it to the market the opportunity to buy those locally grown products out of my store.”

A farmers market runs out of Hiawatha Thriftway’s parking lot on Tuesday evenings that gives people the opportunity to have more access to fresh produce. Vendors display their garden vegetables, fruits, herbs, and homemade jams, jellies and baked bread in front of the store. This might seem odd considering some of the items compete with goods sold in-store, but cooperative selling has become a new way to do business in rural communities, where the purchases often complement each other.

White buys much of the produce not sold at the weekly farmers’ market and sells it in his store so patrons who don’t make the market can still buy locally grown foods.

White said at first he was skeptical about putting competition at his front door, but he remained open-minded. A customer helped him see how the situation could prove beneficial.

“A customer looked at me and said, ‘You know, you put that farmers’ market in your parking lot, I’m going to shop it, and then I’m going to shop your store,’” he said. “So a light bulb went on at that time.”

Profits increased when the cooperative effort took place. “The grocery business is a hard business,” White said. “Profits are almost unattainable sometimes, but that particular evening, we saw about a 4 to 5 percent increase in sales. I consider that amazing, because to get a 4 to 5 percent increase in sales is almost impossible to buy through advertising.”

Kansas State University works regularly with grocers through K-State’s Rural Grocery Initiative (RGI) to drive initiatives that identify and develop models to sustain retail food sources in rural areas. Because the rural grocery business is not only tough, it’s competitive — and those in the business need to be able to innovate in order to adapt and thrive to changing needs of everyday customers.

Americans are increasingly becoming aware of the downfalls of high-fat, processed foods and the havoc minimally-nutritive foods play on our health. We’re slowly but surely learning to be careful and attentive to what we put in our bodies — steering clear of GMO’s and hormone-fed animals. As more Americans return to cooking and reach for more healthy, holistic choices for family meals, grocers must be innovative and meet that demand. Locally-grown foods reduce the environmental impact of our food choices, too.

[Image Credit: Kansas State University]