Group tours three area grocery stores

A group focused on helping agriculture and food systems funders visited three grocery stores in Allen County on Wednesday. At the Mildred Store, owners Loren and Regena Lance outlined their plans for the future.

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June 22, 2022 - 2:02 PM

Regena Lance, right, talks to members of the Sustainable Agriculture and Food System Funders during a tour of three community grocery stores in Allen County on Wednesday. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

MILDRED — Loren and Regena Lance have big plans for the Mildred Store.

Of course, take a tour around at the property and you’ll see that’s always been true.

In just eight years, the Lances have taken a small store, Charlie Brown’s Grocery, in a community of less than 30 residents, renamed it and created a destination. They offer a monthly music show that draws a crowd of about 150, a venue for weddings and other celebrations, and an RV park and campgrounds, recently adding cabins available for rent. On top of all that, the grocery story provides grocery staples and a deli known for its hearty sandwiches. 

The Lances showed off those changes and talked about their future plan with about two dozen members of a group working to help communities improve food systems and agriculture.

The Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Funders (SAFSF) traveled to Allen County on Tuesday to tour three rural grocery stores: the Mildred Store, the Marmaton Market in Moran and Our Market in Humboldt. 

Each of the stores offered a unique approach to meeting the needs of its community. 

The Marmaton Market uses a cooperative membership structure, and recently received a $140,000 grant to build a commercial kitchen. 

In Humboldt, Amy and Scott Welch built a grocery store and meat processing facility. 

Members of the Sustainable Agriculture and Food System Funders check out the dance hall at the Mildred Store on Wednesday. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

SAFSF visited the stores to learn about their challenges, opportunities and resilience. The tour was part of a conference in Kansas City, Mo. 

SAFSF is an organization that helps funders and investors strengthen connections in sustainable agriculture and food systems. Members include investors, grant organizations, community foundations and corporate and private foundations throughout the U.S. and abroad.  

“We convene, educate and organize funders around issues critical to rebuilding community food security and agricultural resilience, and seek to amplify the voice of food systems philanthropy in public policy,” according to the group’s website.

THE VISIT to the Mildred Store was the last stop on the tour. 

Upon walking into the store, members were immediately drawn to the music venue. The Lances explained how the building had been crammed full of hardware and miscellaneous items when they bought it. It’s now decorated with a rustic, retro style featuring a stage, a dance floor with cornmeal still on the floor from last weekend’s dance, swirling lights, church pews and wooden fence panels used as partitions. 

“Oh, this is adorable,” someone said. 

Several attendees took photos and videos, and make notes as the Lances talked about their work.

The group met with Regena Lance, who presented members with a packet of information about the store’s history and her future plans. 

She told them about a delivery service begun during the pandemic, which continues. 

She wants to expand that service. Lance directed their attention to a map, showing Mildred in the center and circles to represent up to 25 miles away. Within that circle, just five communities — Moran, Iola, Humboldt, Mound City and Garnett — have grocery stores. Another 25 communities do not. Some are food deserts, located more than 10 miles from a grocery store.

Initially, Lance wanted to offer a mobile grocery store. A truck would visit each community, allowing residents an opportunity to buy food without having to travel far from home. 

But that presented certain challenges, such as timing. The delivery schedule may not be convenient for all residents.

So, Lance continued to do research. She discovered some places offer temperature-controlled grocery lockers. Residents could place and pay for an order online, the Mildred Store would deliver to the locker and notify the resident the order was ready for pickup at their convenience. 

Lance wants to buy about four of the lockers, and place them in communities with the greatest need and reach. She expects the cost would total about $240,000, so she’s hopeful to find a grant to help pay for the expense. 

Lance outlined another plan she hopes would benefit small, rural grocery stores around the area. 

She wants to form a consortium of stores and build a warehouse at Mildred. The consortium would allow the stores to increase their buying power, as they would purchase larger quantities and store items at the warehouse. 

Individually, it’s difficult for a small store to get the best deals.

She gave an example: When she orders a 12-pack of Coca Cola from her supplier, it costs her $8. That doesn’t include any sort of markup that would allow her store to make a profit and compete with other area retailers. So instead of paying such a high price, she will travel to larger retail stores up to 100 miles away to find better deals. 

A consortium would solve that problem, not just for the Mildred Store but others in the area. 

Mildred is a good location for the warehouse, she said, because it is located near four counties: Allen, Anderson, Linn and Bourbon. 

Lance said she still has a lot of work to do in order to turn her plans into reality. 

But the Mildred Store already has turned into more than the Lances ever dreamed possible, so she and her husband are confident they can continue to make progress.

“It’s about making a difference in these communities,” she said.

“If you’re going to dream, dream big.”

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