Iowan, once nation’s youngest grocer, still fighting for rural

Iowan, once nation’s youngest grocer, still fighting for rural

Gazette Column
WICHITA, Kan. — If attendees at the Rural Grocery Summit pulled Bic lighters from their pockets, gave them a flick and held the flame in the air as the owner of three rural Iowa grocery stores gave his keynote address, I wouldn’t have been surprised. It was clear many attending viewed the man as part rock star and part legend. And, for those searching for rural saviors, Nick Graham comes pretty close — even if he is reluctant to embrace the fame. His popularity has little to do with his overall success rate, because he’d be the first to tell you that he has made mistakes. But no one can deny that Graham embodies an attribute that’s become a necessity in rural counties and small towns. Nick Graham, you see,…
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Getting the farm onto the table

Getting the farm onto the table

Gazette Column
WICHITA, Kan. — What does a high-end caterer in a rural area do to give back? If you are Donald Sorby, you volunteer with a statewide program that empowers families at risk of hunger to gain the skills, knowledge and confidence to make healthy and affordable meals. Sorby was one of about 200 people attending a Rural Grocery Summit, and offered his experience as part of Cooking Matters Minnesota as a way food retailers and advocates could promote a healthier lifestyle. The program is partnership between University of Minnesota Extension and Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign. Participants enroll for a six-week course that meets once a week and covers nutritional information, offers hands-on food preparation and provides strategies for food budgeting and shopping. Participants learn to cook two…
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Summit focus is declining food access

Summit focus is declining food access

Gazette Column
WICHITA, Kan. — Rural grocery store owners, food advocates and system experts are gathered for the fifth Rural Grocery Summit. If you’re wondering why I’m in the audience … well, let’s say you probably aren’t alone. The answer as to why I’m attending the summit is both simple and complex. The most direct answer is that I grew up in rural America; I’ve lived it and have family still living it. What happens to them matters to me and, therefore, what ails rural places also matters. More complex is my ongoing curiosity about how groups of people interact, and the ways industries and organizations adapt to ever-changing external forces. Why have we allowed certain places to exist as food deserts? How long are we willing to let our tax dollars…
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Prepare for more food deserts

Prepare for more food deserts

Gazette Column
Accessing fresh produce and other healthy and affordable food will become increasingly more difficult over the next decade. Nearly two-thirds of rural grocery store owners in Minnesota expect to step away from their business within 10 years, according to a recent Minnesota Extension survey. Many owners are aging out of the workforce and preparing for retirement. Only a fraction have adopted transition plans that would keep the grocery open and prevent possible food deserts. The survey also found the majority of rural grocery stores are housed in older buildings, requiring significant upkeep — 43 percent of owners reported their facility was at least 50 years old, others (44 percent) were between 16 and 50 years old. “With aging buildings and thin profit margins, I’m concerned we will see a continuation…
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Pair health insurance with access

Pair health insurance with access

Gazette Column
More of Iowa’s kids have health insurance. Now we need a more robust system that allows them to use it. A report released Thursday by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation says between 2013 and 2014, about 13,000 more Iowa youngsters received health insurance, mainly through their eligibility for public insurance plans like Hawk-i or Medicaid. Increased adult access to Medicaid programs came via millions in funding from the Affordable Care Act. Researchers believe that as adults discovered new Medicaid options for themselves, youngsters were also signed up for coverage. In this report, Iowa claims the fifth lowest uninsured rate for children (3.2 percent) — a significant move in the right direction from it’s earlier placement of 13th in the nation (5 percent). Many state residents and health care advocates worked…
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2016 Iowa caucus is no rural friend

2016 Iowa caucus is no rural friend

Gazette Column
Thank goodness it’s nearly time to pitch the hay bales back in the barn. Presidential candidates — declared and exploring — have been milling about Iowa for more than a year. They’ve tucked celebrities and national figures into their suitcases, unpacking them alongside talking points in cities and towns from Rock Rapids to Keosauqua. They’ve posed on our farms, sat at our kitchen tables and strolled the midway at the fair. But, with the exception of ethanol, few bothered to discuss agriculture, much less ongoing and worsening challenges in rural communities. To be fair, school transportation budgets, child poverty, broadband access, land values, post office closures, food safety, water quality, workforce challenges and the like aren’t sexy topics. They are nuanced and difficult. Threats of carpet-bombing or promises of wall…
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Vilsack support of Branstad water quality proposal no surprise

Vilsack support of Branstad water quality proposal no surprise

Gazette Column
Tax exemptions should be on the table The urban and rural divide is alive and thriving. The response to an appearance this week by former Iowa governor and U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack at Gov. Terry Branstad’s news conference announcing a possible extension and expansion of a penny sales tax now funneled to school infrastructure proves it. Branstad’s proposal is to extend a one-cent sales tax earmarked for school infrastructure and set to expire in 2029. The plan would keep the tax in place for 20 additional years, through 2049. While schools would continue to earn proceeds from that tax to a certain cap point, about three-quarters of future growth would be funneled to conservation efforts that help reduce farm chemical runoff and, in turn, improve Iowa’s water quality. Some…
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Moving beyond projects to philosophy

Moving beyond projects to philosophy

Gazette Column
Since returning from the National Rural Assembly I’ve been reaching out to small town leaders and advocates with a question: “Why does so little of the federal grant money set aside for creative placemaking flow into Iowa?” The National Endowment for the Arts set up the Our Town grant program for creative placemaking and began issuing grants in 2011. Since that time, only two Iowa applications have been successful. Of all the money issued by the NEA for this purpose, less than 1 percent has flowed into Iowa communities. Responses to my question have been as varied as the backgrounds and experiences of the people I’ve asked. Some feel the national application process favors states on the coasts. Others lament a lack of the local partnerships required for such grants.…
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Can rural K-12 achieve the promise of NGSS?

Can rural K-12 achieve the promise of NGSS?

Gazette Column
Rural education leaders outline STEM successes, challenges IOWA CITY — Two days of meetings this week highlighted the latest national standards that will change rural K-12 education in Iowa. The Next Generation Science Standards, rolled out in 2013 and adopted by Iowa leaders this past August, are the first broad recommendations for science instruction in 20 years. Developed by a consortium of 26 states (including Iowa) and several scientist and teaching groups, they primarily switch the focus from rote memorization to hands-on learning and critical thinking. Instruction will emphasize the scientific process — analyzing data, developing models and constructing logical arguments. Advocates have touted the standards as being able to accomplish what current science instruction cannot: make students care by connecting them and lessons to their communities in very practical…
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The changing face of rural America

The changing face of rural America

Gazette Column
Young conference attendees hope to build more inclusive communities WASHINGTON, D.C. — Asked to create a mental image of the people most likely to participate in a national rural conference, few would imagine Kendall Bilbrey. And, actually, that’s the point. Bilbrey is originally from southwest Virginia, but now calls Whitesburg, Kentucky home, and serves as the coordinator of the Stay Together Appalachian Youth (STAY) Project. The organization hopes to create an environment in which young people are empowered to stay in or near their hometowns, and seeks to amplify the voices of those who currently feel marginalized. “Growing up in Appalachia, there are people constantly putting ideas on you about what you are — for instance, that everyone living in this rural region is poor,” Bilbrey told me at the…
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