tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

A small effort can help a lot of people

Starting a small business is not easy; I know. It took a while to get NFR Communications running smoothly after its launch in 1992. But when my brother-in-law Eric said he was going to move his wife and two kids to a small town in north-central Missouri from the Twin Cities to open a grocery store, I encouraged him. His career wasn’t really going anywhere in Minneapolis, so why not go to a town of 500-some people where your work could really make a difference?

His grocery store opened in Keytesville last March. Moving into a building that had been abandoned by a previous grocer, Eric fixed the place up and set up shop. I had a chance to visit last July. It’s a clean, inviting store. His father-in-law is butchering meat and his wife handles product display and marketing.

Eric has worked through all the typical small business launch challenges: figuring out staffing levels, assessing product mix, determining the best hours of operation, building credibility in his marketplace, and more. A small customer group is patronizing the store but it’s not easy. There is a Wal-Mart 30 miles away offering most of the same products at prices that are simply impossible to match. And, a lot of people are still shopping elsewhere; old habits are hard to break.

My wife and I wanted to help Eric out – Susan, because Eric is her brother, and me, because I knew how much a fledgling business owner appreciates any help he can get. Susan and I figured we could buy groceries from him; we certainly buy a lot of groceries and it really doesn’t matter where most of them come from. So we e-mailed Eric our grocery list and he sent the food up via UPS. We tried that for a few weeks but the delivery costs really made this approach impractical. We thought about it some more and that’s when we came up with another idea.

Certainly there are charities in the Keytesville area that give food to people who have trouble making ends meet, we thought. We’d be willing to donate to such a charity if it agreed to buy the food at Eric’s store. It seemed like a win-win solution. People on hard times would get the food they need and the store would get some additional business. If the store succeeds, it may even contribute to the economic development of the town; that could mean new jobs and opportunities so fewer people would have to rely on charity to get their food.

When we were visiting Eric’s family last July, he introduced me to the local banker, who had helped him get started. I remembered the banker -- Norman Bentley at the Citizens Bank & Trust in Keytesville – and gave him a call. Did he know of any local charities that might be willing to work under such an arrangement? He said he would look into it and get back to me.

Within a few weeks, he had worked out an arrangement through the Chariton County Community Foundation and the Salisbury Food Pantry. Keytesville is in Chariton County. The foundation had been formed years ago to funnel donated funds to local charitable efforts. Keytesville doesn’t have a food pantry but the neighboring town of Salisbury does. So the foundation said it would be happy to accept donations earmarked for the Salisbury Food Pantry, and the food pantry said it would be happy to use those funds to purchase food from the Keytesville Grocery.

But the people at the food pantry came up with an important improvement to the idea. Instead of giving people food purchased from the grocery store, it would give people vouchers that they could redeem at the store. This way, the food pantry could offer people meat and produce, as well as the canned and boxed goods that food pantries typically offer. For Eric, that means new people in his store, and some of those new customers might even spend a little more than the value of their vouchers.

The Salisbury Food Pantry serves 220 families consisting of 578 individuals, including many children. The food pantry provides a very important service, as Chariton County is one of the poorest counties in the Heartland. If this goes well, food pantries in other neighboring towns may join in the effort.

Susan and I were so pleased with the arrangement that we made a donation to kick things off. We have tried to spread the word to friends and family that this is a great opportunity to alleviate hunger right here, close to home. While of course it is important to consider the needs of the tsunami victims and other charitable causes, it is important to remember that there are people right here in the middle of the country who need help. What a shame that there should be so much hunger in the most affluent country in the world. A contribution to the Chariton County Community Foundation helps our neighbors work through personal economic challenges, helps a small fledgling business, and creates some hope for economic development in a town that doesn’t typically see a lot of new opportunities.

I invite you to join Susan and me in this effort. Consider making a tax-deductible donation to the Chariton County Community Foundation; add this charity to your on-going charitable giving plan.

Make your check out to:

The Chariton County Community Foundation

Send it to:

The Chariton County Community Foundation
c/o: Citizens Bank & Trust
P.O. Box 204
Keytesville, MO 65261

Your help can make a big difference to a lot of people. Thank you for your consideration and generosity.

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