Distribution-Large wholesale distributors need the support valve of organizations like Kanbe’s that can take large amounts of donated food, triage it and distribute where it is needed in parts of the food system that these businesses cannot.

In many parts of the United States, there is a crisis caused by people having limited access to healthy & affordable food options. This in turn is creating a host of health and social problems. What exactly is a food desert? What causes a food desert? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert? How can this problem be solved? Who are the leaders helping to address this crisis?

In this interview series, called “Food Deserts: How We Are Helping To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options” we are talking to business leaders and non-profit leaders who can share the initiatives they are leading to address and solve the problem of food deserts.

As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Maxfield Kaniger.

Maxfield Kaniger is the founder and CEO of Kanbe’s Markets, a nonprofit organization formed to improve food access in communities throughout Kansas City through collaboration with locally owned corner stores. Max founded Kanbe’s Markets in 2016 in an effort to bring fresh, healthy and affordable food to low-income neighborhoods in Kansas City where grocery stores are scarce, otherwise known as “food deserts.” As an inaugural changemaker for The Missing Ingredients Project by Triscuit, Max received a 50,000 dollars grant as part of the brand’s 1 million dollars commitment to expanding access to fresh fruits and vegetables across the U.S.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I have always been passionate about how food can bring people together. As the son of a local chef here in Kansas City I grew up surrounded by food and fresh options, and quite honestly never considered this food wasn’t available to everyone.

After college I traveled through Europe, India and Australia, and when I returned home I had an interest in our food system. I wanted to help connect people with fresh, nourishing food. There are over 400,000 people in Kansas City without access to fresh, nourishing fruits and vegetables, and I became determined to make a change at the local level to improve this.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I think most entrepreneurs would empathize with the fact that some of the most interesting lessons come from the places you least expect. For me it actually came in the “idea” stage of Kanbe’s. Initially, when I started working on food access I had wanted to open a full scale nonprofit grocery store. After the city purchased the building I was interested in and spent roughly 17M dollars turning it into a grocery store, I realized that might not be the way to go. Not only because that amount of money would be nearly impossible for a 24-year-old to raise, but because one grocery store isn’t the correct model to fix this problem. Still, I was a little discouraged about what to do next when a longtime family friend named Susi Cohen, who had actually lived in a food desert for her whole life, said, “well let’s just go ask people what they think would work.” She then picked me up and we just drove around the city stopping to talk to people that happened to be outside. More and more we realized that every neighborhood had a small corner store, and that in each of those stores the people really knew each other. They all really cared about each other and what was happening in their lives. It was this “aha” moment that led to the development of our “healthy corner store” program that is the foundation of Kanbe’s work.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

The impact of our work at Kanbe’s Market was completely catalyzed by leveraging local partnerships when we discovered we needed to champion small businesses and invest in innovative food delivery systems.

After identifying the hundreds of locally owned convenience stores, gas stations and corner bodegas with deep ties in the community, the first Healthy Corner Store location began to sell fresh and affordable fruits and vegetables in 2018. Today, we provide fresh food access for over 250,000 residents per year — and counting.

Now, with the support of TRISCUIT and The Missing Ingredients Project, we are excited to expand our mission to improve nutritious, fresh food access in local communities all over the country.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Our partners are essential to the work we do. Without our local wholesalers, we could not source our fresh fruits and veggies we sell at a discount. Without the network of neighborhood corner stores and gas stations, we would not be reaching those in food desert communities. Part of the reason I felt comfortable taking this leap was because I knew I had the support of family and friends behind me. There are still so many people that step up every day and help because they love me and believe in me. I want to transfer that love and support back into Kansas City

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  • Perseverance-Rarely are things going to go exactly the way you plan. However, if you are willing to show up, work hard, and stick to it, then anything is possible. I think when starting this organization I must have gone to 70+ local stores before one gave us a shot.
  • Mindfulness-Doing something the right way, even if it is a little more difficult makes all the difference in the long run. Constantly trying to leave things better than you found them will not only bring you peace of mind in knowing that you did the best you could, but it will also earn you the respect of those around you who see the care and time you put into your work. Most of our early events were big group events with a lot of different people/companies involved. I would regularly get weird looks when I made sure to bring my own broom, cleaning supplies, and trash bags along with our marketing materials. It didn’t matter if the window behind us hadn’t been cleaned in months, I would clean it because I was grateful for the opportunity to share my idea. This developed into a reputation for the way Kanbe’s approached all of our work.
  • Empathy-At the end of the day, everything we do is about the people. If we can’t see things from their perspective, stand in their shoes, or meet them where they are we will never really hit the mark. No matter what you do, I believe it will be more successful if you are able to really see things from the perspective of whoever you are working with. This approach has not only been helpful in the work we do in the community, but also how we raise money. By talking to our donors about what they care about and what they want to see, I can better show them how their donation will help us achieve their goals too.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Growing up I was constantly reminded to, “put your worst foot forward.” My mom actually picked this “life lesson” up from a local Kansas City entrepreneur named Barnett Helzberg. For me this means we use each opportunity, each interaction, to be open and vulnerable with who we are and the work that we do. There is always more to learn and by putting our worst foot forward, we not only open ourselves up to the opportunities for growth and support, we also are able to connect with others in a deeper way.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about Food Deserts. I know this is intuitive to you, but it will be helpful to expressly articulate this for our readers. Can you please tell us what exactly a food desert is? Does it mean there are places in the US where you can’t buy food?

Food deserts are geographic areas, either urban or rural, where access to affordable, healthy food options, including fresh fruits and vegetables, is limited or nonexistent because grocery stores are too far away (USDA). In food deserts, access is limited by several factors including distance to the grocery store, the number of stores in the area, family income and availability of transportation.

Can you help explain a few of the social consequences that arise from food deserts? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert?

At Kanbe’s Markets, we know that living in a food desert is not only about not being able to fill your body with fresh foods, but about the way not having access to these foods impacts your health.

Living in a food desert is tied to higher rates of type II diabetes and heart disease. Not having access to the right ingredients to fuel your body has a much longer lasting effect on individuals and their overall health than most people are aware of.

Where did this crisis come from? Can you briefly explain to our readers what brought us to this place?

Here in Kansas City our local food system is deeply rooted in the history of our city. The lack of grocery stores and limited transportation resources on the east side of the city, Troost Avenue, has created a stark division of residents experiencing food insecurity. There are only six grocery stores on our city’s east side, limiting residents to “grocery shop” at convenience stores and gas stations. The Healthy Corner Store model leverages that existing network of locations and makes fresh food available where people already are.

Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact to address this crisis? Can you share some of the initiatives you are leading to help correct this issue?

  • Our Healthy Corner Stores program is the foundation of our mission at Kanbe’s Markets. Through the program, which we founded in 2016, we now provide fresh produce to more than 40 corner stores across Kansas City, serving over 250,000 Kansas City residents in need of fresh, healthy and affordable food.
  • In addition, we now deliver fresh produce directly to homes in need, and we partner with a number of local organizations to donate produce for individuals and families, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our latest collaborative project, Feed KC Forward, helped provide over 12,000 meals from local restaurants.
  • Finally, I’m so thrilled to be named one of TRISCUIT’s first changemakers as part of The Missing Ingredients Project, the brand’s purpose-driven effort to provide access to fresh fruits and veggies in food deserts. Through a 50,000 dollars grant from TRISCUIT, we are constructing a “playbook” that will give leaders in other cities a toolkit for implementing the Healthy Corner Stores model in their communities — expanding our impact exponentially. We’re so thrilled to take our work to the next level with the help of TRISCUIT.

Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

Building Kanbe’s is my biggest accomplishment. Every day we are still surprised by how much it has grown. The initial business plan predicted it would take about three years to get into nine locations. Kanbe’s opened its 43rd location this month.

As I mentioned before, we’re also excited about how the 50,000 dollars donation from TRISCUIT will allow additional communities to implement the Kanbe’s Markets model. We can expand access to fresh fruits and veggies in food deserts, just as we’ve started to do right here in Kansas City. As we continue to build our own data tracking systems, we will be able to define our impact on local, regional and national levels.

In your opinion, what should other business and civic leaders do to further address these problems? Can you please share your “5 Things That Need To Be Done To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

  1. Farming-We need to incentivize smaller, local farmers to be competitive at scale. This has the potential to create a better quality more affordable product, bring revenue directly to these communities, transition farming from one of the largest causes of climate change to one of the largest assets in slowing it, and a broader more diversified farming network would be much more resilient.
  2. Distribution-Large wholesale distributors need the support valve of organizations like Kanbe’s that can take large amounts of donated food, triage it and distribute where it is needed in parts of the food system that these businesses cannot.
  3. Access-Means both proximity as well as affordability for everyone to truly have the option to eat fresh, healthy food consistently.
  4. Waste-Redirecting food waste can help alleviate the food desert issue in the United States ass we should be looking at what we are doing to ensure that no food is ending up in landfills.
  5. Education-This is an important part of the solution, but it must be done well and approached with empathy. All too often “food education” in these communities is demeaning. We need to stop assuming that just because of someone’s socioeconomic status that they don’t have basic food knowledge. We need to create environments where we can have safe and open conversations about what people know, and what they would like to learn. As much as possible, we also need to encourage and support those who have knowledge to share with those that want to learn.

Are there other leaders or organizations who have done good work to address food deserts? Can you tell us what they have done? What specifically impresses you about their work? Perhaps we can reach out to them to include them in this series.

Absolutely! Kanbe’s is only able to do what we are doing because so many other people have paved the way. Here locally, I think that Katherine Kelly and Dina Newman have been the two local leaders running organizations that have most inspired me. Katherine built an organization called Cultivate KC that has been instrumental in the local farming movement in Kansas City. Dina runs the Center for Neighborhood’s and has connected hundreds of different leaders from all over the city and helped develop long lasting supporting relationships in places you would never expect.

On a national level, I am often following the lead of Leah Peninman of Soul Fire Farm, Phil Hicks at Big Green, Danielle Nierenberg of Food Tank, and Ron Finley. All of these people and organizations are worth time to get to know.

If you had the power to influence legislation, are there laws that you would like to see introduced that might help you in your work?

Maybe not laws as much as a change in the incentive structure of our food system. We are still very much in a post WWII mindset of how we feed our country in mass. This mindset incentivizes large scale farming and support for commodity products like corn, and soybeans while the foods that we actually eat are considered specialty crops.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. ?

Oh wow, talk about an opportunity! My first reaction is to talk about our food system, and all of the good change that is really possible if we work together. Honestly though, if I only had one chance the “movement” I would want to inspire is for everyone to focus on and step up for the issue that they care about most. Whether that is farming, hunger, education, homelessness, poverty, you name it. I don’t need everyone to care about the food system, but we need the people who do care to step up. If we are all approaching issues together, there is nothing we can’t fix. The movement to leave this place better than we found it.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

There are so so so many! If I have to pick just one I am going to shoot for the stars and say first lady Michelle Obama. The work she did to build awareness for the issues of food insecurity and food deserts really paved the way for a lot of conversations I had with people in the very beginning. Which, I also think is an important thing to remember– while there was a heavy focus on food through the pandemic, these issues existed before, and will continue to after unless we start doing things differently.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Please follow us on social on Instagram and Twitter at @kanbesmarkets. Also keep up to date on our latest projects online at https://www.kanbesmarkets.org. Plus you can learn more about The Missing Ingredients project here: https://www.triscuit.com/missingingredients/.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.