Students Sell Groceries in a Nebraska Town

May 10, 2019  | 6 min  | Ep4438

According to USDA, a food desert is an area with limited access to sources of healthy food - as measured by distance - to a store.

For those living in rural America, just putting a meal together may require a journey of an hour or more - one way.

There is one Midwestern community that has found a way to cut the travel time from grocery store aisle to dinner table while teaching a lesson.

Peter Tubbs reports in our Cover Story.

The weekly grocery delivery from North Platte has arrived at the Circle C Market in Cody, Nebraska. Six students from Cody- Kilgore High School help unload the shipment and stock the shelves and coolers. These students are the only employees paid by the market, which is part of why a village of 150 residents can support a grocery store.

April Lambert, Cody resident: “We try to get all of our groceries in Cody as much as we can because we know that the store is important to the town and we know that we appreciate it being here and if, if the store wasn't here, we might not have the opportunity to live here.”

The small supermarket is a non-profit. More significantly, it is a joint project between the Village of Cody and the Cody-Kilgore school district. The business teacher at the high school oversees the store in addition to her teaching duties, while the students preform the majority of the labor and management jobs.

Riley Jones, Circle C Employee: “I stock shelves, I deface shelves, I help people out, I make sure the store is presentable, facing, defacing, just helping out.”

Students earn a paycheck for each hour worked as well as academic credit hours. But responsibility for managing is handed to anyone who is ready for the burden.

Bentley Jenkins is the current Purchasing Manager, and also programmed the point of sale system that is used to check out groceries.

Bentley Jenkins, Purchasing Manager “It's kind of hard and our point of sale system, we don't have to inventory totally up to date yet so we can't just print off and then go from there for ordering we have to walk around the store, see what we need and kind of guess. So that's a little tricky.”

While the selection at the Circle C can’t compare to a full-service grocery store, the time savings justify choosing from the limited selection.

April Lambert, Cody resident: “Well, if the store weren't here I would have to, you know, drive to Valentine once a week and get groceries. It's about 38 miles to drive there and then load up on everything and just the storage and planning for all that would be pretty hard with little ones.”

The majority of groceries arrive on Thursdays in time for households to stock up for the weekend. The 63 students of the Cody-Kilgore school district are on a Monday to Thursday calendar, which saves on transportation costs for the district and frees students for ranch work on Fridays. But the lessons learned on the job extend past the basics of business.

Elizabeth Rosefeld, Circle C Employee: “I’m really learning people skills, because I don’t really like to talk to people very often unless I’m working, because then you have to be nice and all that. Which I’m not very good at.”

The 480 residents of the school district are spread across 550 square miles, making it one of the least densely populated districts in the state.

The Circle C is the result of a volunteer effort begun in 2008 to return retail food outlet to Cody, which had been without a local grocery store since 1995.

The market has purchased much of its infrastructure used. One cooler and the checkout stand came from a store in Valentine that was closing. Other coolers and shelving came from another store in Valentine that was remodeling.

A USDA grant funded the initial construction of the store, which was built using straw bale techniques that date back to the 19th century Nebraska prairie. The straw walls are thick but also energy efficient. The store uses $600-$800 per month in electricity, almost all goes to running the large coolers.

Under its present structure, the store is sustainable month-to-month, and has become a community hub where neighbors meet for a few minutes out of their day. 

John Johnson, Cody resident: “…You've got to have a bank, you need a grocery store and you need a school to start with. And we've got all those now. And we just got some young people becoming more involved and you know, you know, a small town like this, you're either surviving and you're dying. And neither one of those options was okay with me because you know, you need to be a town of destination, not want to stop over.”

Summer reduces the sales volume by 50% as residents make fewer trips into Cody. Many households have second homes in town for the school year, with the primary home on the ranch elsewhere in Cherry County.

A commute of 50-miles or more are common in northern Nebraska, and many households have planned meals a week or a month at a time due to the effort needed to buy groceries. The Circle C provides the luxury of only having to plan out a few days.

Groceries are priced 35 percent over their wholesale cost, which is still competitive with stores in Valentine. But while the store pays students $30,000 annually for hours worked, those margins won’t cover the salary of an owner or manager- Circle C only survives as a non-profit educational project. Cody lacks the population to support a for-profit store.

Non-profit status allows spending in other areas- like college scholarships for student employees tied to the number of hours worked in the high school career. Scholarships can reach $600 per semester. But sometimes students have to warm up to the job.

Bentley Jenkins, Purchasing Manager “When I first, when I was hired, I did not want to do this job. My, my parents forced me to have it, Oh - it will be a good experience for you because my older brother, he was the student manager his last year of high school, so I was like, I'm going to hate it. I do want to it. I ended up loving it. So it’s kind of funny.”

For Market to Market, I’m Peter Tubbs.

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