Argentine neighborhood grocery store opens with help from KU Medical Center researchers
February 19, 2014
By Aubrey Bittel
When the only grocery store in Kansas City's Argentine neighborhood closed in 2006, many of its roughly 10,000 residents were left with few options for obtaining healthy food. Bordering Argentine to the southeast is Roeland Park with several grocery stores, but they were at least three miles away. By car that is easily manageable, but many Argentine residents live below the poverty line and do not have access to reliable sources of transportation. They were forced to either walk, which was not a possibility for ill or physically impaired residents, or take the bus, a two hour ride one-way. Nearby gas stations became a fall back for many, but the small variety of food was neither healthy nor appetizing, not to mention expensive. Residents were not happy with their choices, but change did not begin until the Argentine Neighborhood Development Association began repairing sidewalks, curbs, and streets.
"That really energized the community," says Natty Mabachi, Ph.D., an assistant professor with the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Kansas School of Medicine. "People began taking care of their yards again and repairing their houses. Kids started playing outside. People were walking around meeting their neighbors."
That was when Ann Murguia, executive director of the Argentine Neighborhood Development Association (ANDA) contacted Kim Kimmanau, Ph.D., an associate professor of family medicine at KU Medical Center, and Mabachi to engage their help in gathering data, facilitating communication, and fund-raising. Ann felt the neighborhood was ready and deserving of a convenient source for healthy food, and she spearheaded the effort to bring a grocery store back to the area. Kimminau has extensive experience in community health work and knew that the community had to be the driving force behind the project in order for it to be successful. As a result, their first step was to open communications with community members. They recruited 'neighborhood captains,' community members who went door to door giving surveys.
"We also had town hall meetings that got surprisingly emotional," recalls Mabachi. "Mothers had to feed their children food that they knew was unhealthy, but they had no choice. They didn't understand why Johnson County got a Walmart and many other grocery stores. They wanted the same."
Countless hours were spent devoted to gathering data because as Mabachi explains, there was a reason that the neighborhood's last grocery store closed. In order to make sure that did not happen again, they talked to community members about what they wanted in a grocery store, where it should be located, how much they typically spend on groceries, what kinds of foods they wanted to buy, what dishes they make most often, and many more questions that were used to put together a business plan. The data helped in two distinct ways. As fundraising began, donors wanted to know that their money would be going toward a stable, lasting, and beneficial project. The extensive information that had been gathered convinced donors such as the Hall Family Foundation, Country Club Bank, and many others that Argentine's future grocery store would be a success. The detailed business plan also went a long way in attracting potential grocers. Eventually Save-A-Lot Food Stores, which has a history of opening stores in food deserts, committed to opening a store at 2100 Metropolitan Avenue.
"We were happy to get involved," says Chon Tomlin, external communications manager for Save-A-Lot. "If you've never worried about getting your groceries you probably take access to your grocery store for granted, but walking two to three miles every time you need groceries isn't feasible. That's why we wanted the store right in the very middle of the community."
A ground-breaking ceremony was held last summer, and after more than three years of hard work by hundreds of different people, the Argentine community saw its new grocery store open its doors to the public in December. The Harmon High School band was there to help celebrate, and instead of cutting a red ribbon, community members and officials cut a giant dollar to welcome everyone to the new Save-A-Lot.
As exciting as it was to say goodbye to Argentine's food desert, there is more work to be done.
"We want to make sure the communication stays open between the community and the store," says Mabachi. "The grocery store has to respond to the community, and the community has to respond to the store. That's how we'll ensure it doesn't shut down again."
There is also a concerted effort toward providing community members with the healthiest options possible and teaching them how to use them.
"We have dieticians who will show you how to read labels and share best practices," explains Tomlin. "And we take into account the full demographic and the unique foods for different cultures."
The project is an on-going one, but perhaps most exciting is the way news of Argentine's success has affected other communities. The Quindaro community, also a food desert, has reached out to Kimminau and Mabachi.
"Every neighborhood is different, but they've been spurred on by this model," says Mabachi. "If we can play a role in helping push that along, we're all in."