Donna Pearson McClish, of Common Ground Producers and Growers Inc.,could become a supplier for the Healthy Corner Initiative. (Photo courtesy of Sedgwick County Extension Office)

If you are among the many Wichita residents living in an area without a full-service nearby and fresh produce and vegetables aren’t available at the nearby convenience or corner store, you could be in for a happy surprise as early as this summer.

Seven months after voting to use $1 million from federal pandemic funds to seed a program aimed at making fresh produce available in designated “food deserts,” the Wichita City Council is set to vote on Feb. 7 for the adoption of a master plan designed to address the problem.  

Healthy Corner Store Initiative 

The Council is being asked to approve a local master plan based on the Healthy Corner Store Initiative, a national model developed by The Food Trust in Pennsylvania. It’s a model that has been adopted by cities across the country, all trying to address the same problem in portions of their community.  

Residents in those areas are often low-income. Many don’t have access to transportation and shop for groceries at locations they can walk to, which often means chain stores such as Dollar General and convenience stores which do not have the infrastructure necessary to store and display fresh produce. 

Mayor Brandon Whipple said the city was already aware of areas in town that did not have access to fresh produce before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, but a wave of store closures in  2020 and 2021 made the problem much worse.

It was those closures that pushed the City Council last summer to approve the use of $1 million in pandemic relief funds for the design and implementation of a program.  

The Wichita Plan

The Food Trust has been working with the City to develop a Master Food Plan, identify census tracts where residents have limited access to fresh produce, and identify suppliers and retailers willing to work with the program.

Consultants New Venture Advisers, working with The Food Trust, and with a local steering committee, developed Wichita’s plan. 

The consultants recommended the city work with local retailers or vendors rather than the national chains routinely found in lower income areas, including Dollar General and Family Dollar.  

“We’ve learned that the managers of those stores have very little control over inventory,” consultant Eileen Horn with New Venture Advisors said.  “It can be really difficult trying to work with corporate ownership, which tends to want consistent inventory in every store. The local retailers have a much smoother path to decision making.” 

The plan calls for the consultants to secure agreements with six existing retailers to get the program up and running between April 1 and Dec. 31, 2023. Three retailers who served on the steering committee have expressed interest in participating, the advisers said. Three more will have to be located. An additional 12 stores will be added to the initiative from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31 of 2024.

Seven census tracts in Wichita have been identified as those with the greatest need. Four of those are in District 1 in northeast Wichita. Two are in District 6 in the north central area  and one is in District 3 in the southeast. store in the chain. The local retailers have a much smoother path to decision making.” 

Working With Local Stores 

The plan calls for consultants to work with the retailers to help them transition and succeed in the program. 

Juan Vila with The Food Trust, said a challenge for many retailers is “right-sizing” the investment in storage and display, allowing them to start small enough to avoid excess spoilage in the initial phase of the program and large enough to provide for growth as more people learn the produce is there

Vila also recommends working with the Department of Children and Families part of the partnership to help train and walk retailers through the process  of becoming and functioning as a retailer authorized  to accept WIC or SNAP benefits.

“The areas that are the most underserved often include populations that are very dependent on food assistance and need a location that can accept their benefits,” Vila said. “Most retailers in those areas will need help to navigate the system and get qualified to take those benefits.”

Partners and Suppliers

The program is designed to work with local suppliers, including local growers and other local and/or small businesses that provide services needed in the program.  In addition, the Healthy Corner Store Initiative Model is designed to work with a range of partners to help people not only buy healthy food, but to understand why fresh fruits and vegetables are important to them. Potential partners in the Wichita effort include the Sedgwick County Health Department,  local 

Health clinics such as HealthCore and GraceMed, local farmers, manufacturers of produce shelves, refrigeration units and others.

Healthcare organizations can offer in-store counseling to shoppers on foods that are healthy and a partnership with a local restaurant or food service company can help by offering cooking advice to help people know how to prepare fresh produce to have the best eating experience.

In-store displays, hand-out materials and presentations will be part of the rollout of the Initiative to make sure that customers get all the information they need.