Kanbe's Markets eliminates food deserts in Kansas City by making fresh, healthy produce easy to stock, easy to buy, and fun to eat.
Kanbe's founder, Max Kaniger.
The food deserts of Kansas City and some of our partner stores.
One of our shelves in a partner store.
A short video overview of our mission.
Lead Applicant Organization Name
Lead Applicant Organization Type
Small company (under 50 employees)
Website of Legally Registered Entity
How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?
Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?
Kansas City, MO
Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?
United States of America
Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?
Kansas City, MO
What country is your selected Place located in?
United States of America
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
Starting long before I founded Kanbe's Markets, food and community have been important and inseparable parts of my life. I grew up in restaurants and grocers, at barbecues and potlucks. I also grew up blocks away from Troost Avenue, Kansas City's historic segregation line — and the beginning of the city's largest food desert. A short walk east from my childhood home still reveals a striking disparity between my city's haves and have-nots.
These connections fuel both my concern about food insecurity and my optimism that it can be addressed, especially with the guidance of incredible board members and community leaders. With our combined expertise in activism, engagement, food systems, and policy, we've been able to develop a deep understanding of the economic, social, and political issues at play. We've also learned so much from just doing the work, which puts us in conversation with people at every point of our city's food systems: local growers, wholesalers, grocers, restaurateurs, shop owners, consumers, and policy makers.
Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.
The city skyline.
An areal view of Kansas City, MO.
Kansas City's River Market.
Food is a big part of Kansas City's identity. Barbecues, cook outs, potlucks, tailgating, and backyard parties are common across the city year-round. In fact, our "cowtown" has been a force in the food industry nationwide for most of its lifetime — our being in the heartland of the country made us a hub for distribution, especially for food. In the early and mid 1900s, millions of farm animals moved through our city's Livestock Exchange yearly.
Up until around WWII, Kansas City was a site of major activity and innovation — "everything's up to date in Kansas City," they used to say. While this certainly hasn't been true for a while, the city has experienced a recent rebirth. Our downtown has gone through a major facelift, our visual and performing arts scenes are flourishing, and our heartland location has attracted numerous businesses in technology, healthcare, pharmaceuticals, and the like.
Like many American cities, though, all this abundance isn't accessible to everyone — and it is especially ironic that a city famed for its powers of distribution seems to have such trouble getting affordable produce across one street: Troost Avenue. Once the site of Walt Disney's early studio, the neighborhoods along Troost underwent drastic changes as "white flight" saw many families moving away from their new neighbors of color. To this day, the street still splits the city into a wealthy, mainly-white west and a poor, mainly-non-white east. Most census tracts in districts east of Troost are considered food insecure with poverty rates of upwards of 60%. Two thirds of those in Jackson County labeled as insecure qualify for government assistance while the remaining third is not impoverished enough for eligibility.
What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)
What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
One great irony of food systems worldwide is that many go hungry while much of our food goes to waste — upwards of 40% of our supply in the US. A good portion of that waste comes from supermarkets themselves, which have set a concerning baseline of year-round abundance.
At the same time, many people face physical and financial obstacles in getting that food, either commuting great distances to find it or relying instead on convenience and fast-food stores — which limits their choices to salty, sugary, processed, and comparatively pricier foods.
In 2015, 15.2% of Missouri households were food insecure. In Kansas City’s Jackson County alone, 19% of residents experienced this insecurity — including 20% under the age of 18. It is deeply troubling that these trends often follow and reinforce racial segregation. These systemic inequalities amplify poor nutrition and the health problems that follow: for example, the prevalence of diabetes in Jackson County is 11.5%, compared to a national level of 9.4%. These health issues complicate the challenges people in these communities already face, robbing them of the basic agency and dignity they deserve.
In the neighborhoods we serve, local businesses express a huge desire to provide fresh, healthy food. But these small stores face big hurdles: without the typical volume of a larger supermarket, they aren't appealing clients for wholesalers. When they do manage to stock produce, it tends to be at a markup that passes the financial burden onto the customer. On top of all this, well-intentioned SNAP regulations make stocking fresh produce much more difficult than stocking candy bars and soda.
There is also a deeply ingrained (and familiar) problem in the economics of our current food system: money typically flows out of local economies towards a small number of massive companies. Comparing these companies' massive marketing budgets for their sugary, processed foods with their philanthropic donations is often a sobering exercise. At the same time, small differences can mean a world of change for local economies. While getting to know the local growers, we've come to realize that these economics are so skewed that even a small portion of our produce buying budget — say, a modest purchase of $2,000 — makes a huge difference for their business. With the current trajectory of economic inequality, we find it fair to forecast that this situation may change for the worse by 2050.
Overall, future trends in food security data at first look promising: in 2019, the USDA reported the number of low-access census tracts was steadily decreasing, meaning more and more food stores are being built all across the country. At the same time, the number of low-income tracts is steadily increasing, suggesting that the issue may become more about income and resource constraints. Continuing the trend of increased access going while keeping prices low for businesses and customers alike will be key to combating food insecurity.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
There are many great things about our food system, but they often only work at scale. We saw an opportunity to create and serve a food system at that scale to provide affordable, fresh foods where the for-profit system wouldn't.
If for-profit supermarkets typically don't see enticing bottom lines in serving food insecure neighborhoods, why not equip and empower existing small businesses instead? And if a single small business isn't an appealing client to a wholesaler, why not create purchasing power through a group of many?
Just as the 'greenest' building to build is the one that's already built, the existing businesses and local farms make for the most sustainable way to bring fresh food into the neighborhood. If distributing, stocking, and selling this fresh food is made easier and more financially viable — or even done for them — then it mobilizes businesses to do so regardless of how lucrative it is to stock candy bars.
We've proven this can work with our first 20 stores:
By representing this network as a non-profit, we can buy produce in bulk from local growers or have it donated by wholesalers.
By buying from local growers, we make a marked difference in their bottom line — when a purchase of even $2,000 gets these growers excited, our current food budget of $230,000 becomes a wonderful way to invest in Kansas City's agricultural economy.
By supplying each store with a refrigerated shelf and by handling all of the deliveries and stocking, the only extra work these stores need to do is open the door for our delivery team.
By selling the produce on consignment, we eliminate shop owners' main financial hurdle in providing produce.
By connecting with these established businesses that already play a role in the routines of the neighborhood, we make a immediate impact.
Finally, we are able to close the loop by turning extra produce into compost with the help of local farms and other nonprofits.
With a long waitlist of stores, our mid-2020 goal is to scale our network to include 50 locations. The rest of the year will be spent auditing and improving the sustainability of our system as well as taking advantage of the other benefits we get with such a wide reach.
Kanbe’s is not the only organization combatting food insecurity in Kansas City. We see a huge potential in being the glue of our city's evolving food system — and we've already begun working with area hospitals, medical centers, regional and state organizations, and other philanthropic groups. Coordination like this could multiply the scope and power of each organization. Farmers, restaurants, and grocers could turn their potential waste into real meals or recycled as compost; nutritionists could design affordable meals with local chefs; neighborhood organizations could spread the word about opportunities to effect policy change.
High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.
Something as seemingly simple as physical and financial access to healthy foods can have widespread effects on a community. What if food desert residents didn't have to commute great distances to the grocery store? What if eating healthy didn't have to eat into their wallets? What if they could avoid the expensive and debilitating consequences of unhealthy diets? What if more money flowed into local economies instead of the pockets of a few monolithic companies?
We see equitable food access not only as an important human right, but also as a key way to affect all kinds of other change that stems from this marginalization. The network we're creating can not only supply food, but also serve as a catalyst for larger social change. We see a potential to distribute information as well as food, to amplify voices, to give people the strength of numbers and resources to affect policy changes that matter to their communities — and prevent the ill effects of a profit-driven, corporate food industry.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
Our biggest goal for 2050 is creating a successful circular food system — one that not only increases access to healthy foods in insecure neighborhoods, but also makes a serious impact on our local environment and economy. Every part of this system should strive to be as regenerative as possible, from farm to distribution to table to waste. First, we want to create and validate this system at scale for Kansas City, then we would share the template and learnings with other cities across the US and the world — making serious impacts on environments and economies all over.
With regards to the environment, we're currently able to divert 20,000 pounds of food waste every month with our 20 partner locations. This number grows exponentially with our growth as an organization. With projected rates of around 3,300 pounds a month in each of the 50 stores we plan on servicing this year, this number could jump to nearly 165,000 pounds monthly — the equivalent of nearly 1.8 million pounds of CO2 annually — all the while serving more than 150,000 people in these neighborhoods.
With our current purchasing budget and steady sales, we are already making a difference in the financial lives of local growers, local businesses, and low-income households. By 2050, we hope to be operating at a scale and at a level of sustainability where a substantial portion of the money that moves through our organization ends up in local pockets.
For farmers, the previously mentioned opportunities of a few thousand dollars make a big difference. At scale in Kansas City alone, we are aiming for $3 million for purchases from local growers alone.
For businesses in low-income neighborhoods, our consignment-style agreements ensure zero up-front cost. There's also a slew of indirect benefits they enjoy just by offering a wider selection of foods: with just $500 in weekly sales at our first pilot store, their overall business increased by 20%. At our current rates, stores keep around $7,800 yearly in consignment — a significant part of their yearly rent. With our anticipated 50 stores this year performing at projected future rates, between $300K–$1 million would go straight to these small businesses. At our dream scale city-wide, this is a projected $3–5 million.
For residents, we want to offer more than a cheaper alternative to traveling across town for groceries. This year, we're looking to fill five to eight entry-level positions with people from these communities at $15–18 an hour — well above Missouri's minimum wage. At scale, we'll be looking to fill upwards of 60 positions from the same communities.
When it comes to improving our sustainability and increasing our scale to meet these metrics, we see a great opportunity in technology. As a distributor, some of our biggest expenses are vehicle/equipment maintenance, utilities, and packaging. Tech has already proven to be a useful tool in mitigating these costs.
In 2050, we want to be leveraging a number of developing technologies: could we be making biofuel from food waste for our delivery fleet? How about a solar-powered warehouse for food storage? Or an intricate web of perfectly tuned delivery routes, crafted with the help of distribution data and machine learning? What about investing in biodegradable alternatives to plastic packaging like seaweed and mushrooms / mycelium?
Lastly, we hope to use our organization's network and power (especially at scale) to affect policy change at all levels. The hard truth of policy work, though, is that it is very difficult to move the needle — we're close with several policy-minded organizations in Kansas City and it is heartbreaking to see how much effort goes into making small changes.
The real opportunity we see is from within the food system itself: our actions will speak loudest. The impact we've already made at a local level has garnered the attention of our city government, but the politics at play tend to limit their interests to purely economic ones. However, if we continue to be a promising economic force, we gain leverage — not just to push for the environmental and health policies we believe in, but also to serve as a platform amplifying the marginalized voices we serve. Ultimately, providing the community with agency and strength in policy-making will ensure that all voices are heard when designing the future of our city.
How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?