Rural Grocery

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln is the recipient of a grant to help rural communities in the state keep grocery stores thriving and prosperous. 

The Heartland Challenge Grant, awarded to UNL by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, will allow for a team of Nebraska Extension personnel to work with rural communities in Nebraska to preserve grocery stores. 

Nebraska Extension is a program at UNL that assists communities all around the state. According to their website, their mission is to help Nebraskans have an enhanced life through research-based education. 

Chris Harris, a senior program officer in Entrepreneurship for the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, is the Extension program’s contact with the Kauffman Foundation. 

“It was appealing to make this grant to [the Nebraska Extension] because of the statewide reach that the Extension office and the university has, and their history of being able to reach communities and work with them directly to shape programs to support their specific needs,” Harris said.

Harris said this grant is part of a larger portfolio of grants that the Kauffman Foundation made as part of the Heartland Challenge. 

“That portfolio has several goals,” Harris said. “One [is] to support inclusive prosperity for entrepreneurs of all backgrounds in starting businesses; another goal is to support universities and tech transfer and innovation efforts.” 

The goal of the specific grant that the Extension program was awarded is to support rural revitalization in Missouri, Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska, Harris said. 

The Nebraska Extension program will be using this grant to support and help keep communities’ vital businesses — such as grocery stores —  afloat throughout the state.  

The Nebraska Extension program is working to help find different ways of business transfer and ownership to help keep these grocery stores operating, according to Marilyn Schlake, a Community Vitality Initiative Extension Educator.

Schlake will help these rural communities find new ways of ownership and operating within the Nebraskan communities with a team of six people made up of faculty, Extension educators and one graduate student. 

“What we wanted to do is find the best practices and find out what the mindset is of the communities and business owners to measure and to discover what can be done to help these businesses transition to the next generation, to exist to a single owner or maybe transition to a community,” Schlake said.

The Nebraska Extension staffers plan to share their findings and business models throughout the state, Schlake said.

“We want to find out what's going on, how we can take those best practices and put it into a document that we can share across the state as communities deal with these issues,” Schlake said. 

Harris said the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation will be in a supporting role in this effort and that the Nebraska Extension program will take the lead. 

“This is part of an ongoing effort to work with regional institutions to support rural entrepreneurs,“ Harris said. 

Schlake said the program has not yet chosen the exact communities that it will be working with, but the team does know the types of communities they are looking for. 

“We are going to take a careful look and make sure that we have a variety of different situations that we will work with to make sure we get the full breadth of what's happening within these communities and within these businesses,” Schlake said. 

Schlake said that the Extension program is looking for communities with populations under 2,000 that have already been experiencing some business transitions.  

The Nebraska Extension program is using this grant as an opportunity to improve the rural communities of Nebraska. 

“[We look forward to] helping these communities create more vibrant communities, to secure the food source within those communities and to make sure that we have vibrant communities growing, reaching out, striving to improve the economic welfare of the citizens that live there,” Schlake said.