Food Insecurity and Community Impacts: What is your relationship with food availability?

UG Planning + Urban Design
6 min readFeb 11, 2022

Kallie D. McLaughlin / City Planner

When I was a child, I remember spending weekends at Grandma and Grandpas in small town St. John, Kansas. Some days I’d be at Grandpa’s auto body shop, sitting in his 1976 Ford Camper Edition pretending to throw it into gear and back the boat down the imaginary ramp of Lake Kanopolis. Other days, I’d spend it with Grandma, and we would do chores, shop for groceries, and prepare the music for her to play the organ at church on Sunday.

And Groceries. And more groceries…

Photo: The Dillons Market located at the corner square, with the iconic water tower behind it.

Grocery shopping was something we did frequently, buying only what we needed for the next meal or two. The local Dillons was a few blocks away and usually we walked. The cashiers were all in high school save for the managers who had been there seemingly as long as the store had been open. Everybody knew our family — even the butcher — and yes, our Dillons had a butcher. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, we went straight to the customer service line as that was the only cashier that was old enough to sell liquor and print the Powerball. They would complement me on how big I’m growing to be, and I’d relish in their comments as if they equated to how good I was behaving. In fact, one of my most astonishing reflections from that period of my childhood is my grandma sending me to the store around the age of 10 with a blank check to pick up a few groceries, which often included a six pack of beer and said lottery tickets. They knew I wasn’t drinking it, after all.

Grocery stores, gas stations, and co-ops — like churches — often become informal gathering spaces in small towns. Visiting the store becomes routine Sunday church, groceries, then lunch and chores or making the three-hour drive to the mall. Life was good.

And then, your grocery store closes.

Mom called me in a panic, asking what we were going to do for grandma. As stubborn as she was tough, Grandma survived depressions and collapsed economies and was now living alone in a large brick shirtwaist in the small town of St. John, Kansas. It was now too much for her to walk a few blocks to the square to Dillons, but somehow, she could crank the wheel of the old Lincoln and navigate a few blocks to find her essentials. Without that little store, she now would have to hop on the highway and drive to the next town over — and trust me when I say this — Grandma did not have any business being on the highway.

Depending on where you’re from, “Western Kansas” means a different geography and for many in Wyandotte County, it means “anything West of Lawrence” but really this story is any small town in the Midwest — and even the larger ones with close knit communities. St. John sits in Stafford County and has a population of approximately 1,400 and everything relied on that one store — meals on wheels, church food pantries, families, and sometimes even school district lunches. Families now had to drive 12 miles to the next grocery store and that just wasn’t an option for most in the aging community that has a poverty rate of 29%. Stafford County has a population of approximately 4,200 with 466 registered farms in 2019 and over 493,000 acres of farmland. And yet, no grocery store?

Isn’t Kansas part of America’s Breadbasket? Isn’t the Hudson Cream Flour Mill, a major national brand, just a few miles down the road? How does a town in a farming community have no accessible food? Although this small town is hours away and much smaller than the Kansas City metropolitan region, they share a common problem — food deserts and food insecurity.

Considering my inquisitive nature, I became worried and wondered, “How does a city just ‘let’ there be no grocery store?” and I discovered just how prevalent a food deserts are. A food desert in general terms is an area in which there is close food source or in which food sources are limited in what they provide (such as no meat, dairy, or produce). The USDA expands on this, with the official definition comparing population to income to a 1-mile radius. When I initially thought about food deserts, I thought,” That’s a small, rural area problem, or the problem for an impoverished area in a third world country — it couldn’t possibly exist in the KC Metro!”

But it does.

In Wyandotte County, the USDA has identified 18 significant food deserts with numerous smaller food deserts. The latest data from Feeding America lists 21% of Wyandotte County to be considered food insecure, with an estimated 73% of the County’s population qualifying for income-based food assistance.

When I picked up the phone from my mother that day, I was walking in the door to my apartment with bags from my own grocery store, some from the butcher, and a few others from River Market. I was able to buy avocados from Mexico, whole grain bread from a local bakery, and milk in glass bottles that I could later exchange. Suddenly, I felt guilty. Almost all of these were within a one-mile radius of my home and each other, but if I needed to travel further — no big deal — I could drive and had enough income to afford to be a little picky sometimes. How oblivious I had been.

Where do you live relative to your nearest food source? Does it have all the categories and varieties that you were looking for? Could you afford to buy everything you needed? Could you bring multiple bags home with enough food to feed your family the whole week? Did you have to time public transportation routes with a work or daycare schedule? Did you have to travel extra far for a good deal or sale? Do you use food stamps (SNAP) or WIC? Are stores open when you’re available to go? Can you also pick up medicine there or health care items, such as diabetic testing supplies?

To what degree do you have to rearrange or re-organize your life just to meet basic needs?

The cold Kansas weather is here and with it, the increase food drives, and pantry fundraisers pop up all throughout our communities. And while we should never stop giving if we are able, people aren’t suddenly not hungry just because it’s not the Christmas season anymore. Hunger, nutrition deficiency, and food insecurity happens year-round. In the Harvester’s Community Food Network, Wyandotte County is the most food insecure county in their Kansas service area.

In Armourdale, there is no full-service supermarket store and northeast Kansas City, Kansas, hasn’t had a comprehensive grocery store in approximately 30 years. Roadside honor system farmstands are functionally non-existent. Most of the public cannot afford to open a grocery store wherever we need one, so how do we work towards combatting food insecurity at a local level? As is the answer for many projects, it depends on civic involvement. Encourage urban farming, donate to local programs when you can, participate in farmer education programs, support neighborhood markets and shops, and as always, buy local.

Photo: The Cultivate KC Partnership with New Roots for Refugees and Catholic Charities has developed the Juniper Gardens Training Farm as part of a 4-year training program where farmers learn sustainable farming business. Produce is sold from the farmers at local markets across the Kansas City Metropolitan Region.

Thankfully, the town of St. John, Kansas did get another grocery store. It took a City-Council member personally driving a school bus to make grocery runs for people without transportation, leaders and community residents formed a Grocery Task Force. Banks guaranteed loans at unimaginable rates, citizens donated private property near the highway, grants were obtained, and there was certainly lots of learning. In fact, St. John tapped into the same funding sources the Argentine neighborhood did to fund a Save-A-Lot in 2013. White’s Foodliner opened in October 2018. Support your local farmer!

Photo: The new White’s Foodliner Grocery Store, complete with a rotisserie, bakery, and local organic produce.

Sources and Further Information:

St. John, Kansas, replaced its rural grocery store. Is it a food desert model? — KLC Journal (

Groups come together to address food insecurity in downtown KC (

New Community Market to Tackle Food Insecurity in Wyandotte County | Health |

State-By-State Resource: The Impact of Coronavirus on Food Insecurity — Feeding America Action

Food insecurity continues to grow across Kansas City area (

Who We Are — Healthy Communities Wyandotte (