Bringing America Back: Saving Small Towns Through Groceries

PHOTO: Student workers Ethan Campbell, left, a senior at Chilhowee High School and Shelby Bruce, a sophomore at Leetons K-12 School, get to work after the Bulldog Express store opened for business, Jan. 31, 2009, in Leeton, Missouri.
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Like many small, rural towns across the country, Leeton, Mo., has been squeezed by bigger towns and shopping malls.

The once booming town that now has barely 600 residents saw its last grocery store close in the late 1990s. The move forced residents to drive long distances for food and supplies, and left those without transportation few if any options. People feared Leeton would disappear.

"It was very disappointing," said Bonnie Seymour, a lifelong resident of Leeton.

Seymour, a high school teacher at Leeton School, took matters into her own hands and turned the crisis into a teaching moment.

Seymour and fellow teacher Marijayne Manley focused their agricultural business and entrepreneurship classes on business and community, eventually convincing the school to fund the Bulldog Express, the only grocery store in town. The Bulldog Express is named after the school's mascot, and was opened in 2009.

Students take what they learn in class and apply it to operating the small store, which includes working the cash registers, serving customers and cleaning and maintaining the the Bulldog Express.

The students say the economic lessons come quickly when they're so hands on.

"You can't just go and find money on a tree and expect a business to come out of it. You actually have to look into it and plan it," said Mallory Early, a 17-year-old senior at Leeton.

The Bulldog Express, which provides residents with a convenient place to shop, is a natural hit, especially among older residents who say they especially appreciate the convenience.

"If you're a senior citizen and you don't have a lot of transportation, or you're not able to drive, [the Bulldog Express] is pretty much walking distance from anywhere in town," said John Beck.

But students say they provide the community with more than just groceries.

"We have brought our community together. We have brought pride back to our town," said Early.

Academics have called the Bulldog Express a textbook example of how student-run businesses can benefit both students and their communities. Kansas State University used the grocery store as a case study of an innovative approach in providing food to rural areas. The Bulldog Express has also inspired a similarly run store in Kansas.

Despite the notoriety, those who run the Bulldog Express say it is still a work in progress. Students and teachers are currently planning to expand the store to include a deli.

The students and teachers at the Leeton School took it upon themselves to bring America back. If you, or someone you know, is Bringing America Back, let us know.

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