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WATCH: At this market, youths rule

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Mike Tobias for Harvest Public Media
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There’s a unique grocery store in a tiny town in north-central Nebraska that’s unusual because of who owns and operates it.

Mike Tobias of Harvest Public Media travels to Cody, home of the Circle C Market.

On a typical Thursday, staff at the Circle C Market check what’s in stock and decide what to order. Erin Cheney is produce coordinator.

"I’m looking to see what we have a lot of, what we don’t have very much of,” Cheney said while looking through a cooler of vegetables. “So I’m ordering more celery because we only have four packages.”

In a cramped backroom office, Brittany Daugherty calls the grocery store’s food supplier and asks about ordering family-size turkeys.

Nearby, Sydney Adamson works on a computer. “I’m entering all the daily work in QuickBooks,” she explained.

The handful of Circle C staffers finish their hour of work, and go back to school. Yes, back to Cody-Kilgore School, a couple of blocks away, where Adamson and the others are students.

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Credit Mike Tobias for Harvest Public Media
In Cody, Nebraska, an idea that started as kind of a joke turned into reality: A grocery store involving students and community members from the beginning.

“Student-run grocery store, I mean that's not very common,” Adamson said, in a bit of an understatement. It’s rare, in fact, although nationally there are a couple other school-run, nonprofit grocery stores like Circle C.

How did this happen in Cody? First, a little background. The village sits atop Cherry County, a sparsely populated chunk of Sandhillsranchland bigger than the entire state of Connecticut. Just 156 people call Cody home. It’s not a prime location for any retail business to thrive and survive; Cody’s previous grocery store closed more than a decade ago.

“It started through a brainstorming session actually here at the school long before I was here,” said Todd Chessmore, who was attracted to the Cody-Kilgore Schools superintendent job because of the Circle C project. “A couple teachers said, you know kind of as a joke, ‘We need to have a grocery store.’ As the discussion went on, that joke turned into, ‘Well, let's see what we can do.’ ”

They turned a crazy idea into reality, involving students and community members from the beginning. The USDA and Sherwood Foundation were among groups that provided startup funding; the Center for Rural Affairs helped with planning. After a few years of discussion, debate and some challenges, they were ready to break ground. Then it took a few months and lots of volunteers to construct the unique 3,500-square-foot building, which has walls filled with straw for insulation.

The Circle C finally opened for business about three years ago.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CininAZ_N3k

“I've actually been involved since I was in third grade,” said Adamson, a Cody-Kilgore sophomore.

She started out going to planning meetings with her mom, who is a teacher and one of the earlier proponents of the store. Now Adamson spends several hours a week there.

“I’ve been here through the, when they thought it wasn’t going to work and it wasn’t possible," Adamson said. "Just always kept going and found a way and now we have a store and it’s kind of special.”

Here’s how it works: A board of community members oversees the nonprofit operation. Chessmore is executive director. During the school day, students take on tasks at the store as part of different classes, with a paid adult employee and teachers on hand to help train and supervise. The rest of the time, students are paid to work at Circle C.

“The store is truly run by students. I think that's probably the thing that (we) kind of battled for a little bit,” Chessmore said. “We have adults that are involved, but essentially, we try and get the kids to do pretty much everything.”

That is everything from elementary school students decorating grocery bags, to high schoolers deciding to stock a new cereal. On this day, a small group of students decided to replace a generic crisp rice cereal that “never sells” with a different option. In a larger backroom that doubles as a meeting room where classes often gather before starting work, junior Augie Galloway researched different cereal options. “I’m gonna do a Peanut Butter Toast Crunch deal,” he explained.

Adamson schedules workers, and has been known to cover an open shift at the last minute, something that’s not easy when you live 45 miles from town.

“Most people wouldn’t think it would work,” she said. “I mean, the students are doing most of the work. We have supervisors, but it's on us. Yeah, there's a lot of mistakes made, but everything is fixable and we’re getting through it. It’s growing and doing well.”

The store does about $250,000 of business a year. They’ve worked to attract business by keeping prices competitive and stocking 1,500 items. After just a couple of years, Chessmore said the operation is self-sustaining and in the black. But not by much, and primarily because of how it’s run.

“Without the school being this intimately involved, I don't think it could be done,” Chessmore said. “I don't. It wouldn’t, it cannot generate enough funds and still be competitive to stay open.”

What doesn’t show up on the Circle C ledger is how the village and its people benefit from having a grocery store that’s not an hourlong round-trip away. Or how students benefit from having a place to market products they’ve created, a place to earn a little money with a part-time job, and maybe most importantly, a place to gain real-world experience.

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Credit Mike Tobias for Harvest Public Media
A student enters information into the Circle C Market's computer system.

  If you’re one of Cody-Kilgore’s 165 students, you’re likely to do something at the store during your school years.

“We really see kids start blossoming. We’re giving them an opportunity to do real-life experiences,” Chessmore said. “They’re learning customer service. They’re learning that there’s a lot to running a business.”

Eighth-grader Lizzy Hooper said: “If I ever want to run a business, I know what to put on the shelves. How to put it on the shelves. How to finance. How to get grants, and marketing and advertising.”

“I'll know how to work with people better,” added Daugherty, a sophomore.

Adamson, who will manage the store this summer, said Circle C helps her prepare for a possible future in accounting. But she’s learned more by being involved in the process from the start.

“The store really taught me to ... never take the first ‘no.’ There's always a solution,” she said. “And (if) people tell you ‘no,’ you've got to keep working and don't give up.”

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Credit Mike Tobias for Harvest Public Media
A sign on the outskirts of town clearly states Cody's self-image.

An attitude reflected throughout the Circle C, and throughout a village that on an edge-of-town sign calls itself “too tough to die.”

Harvest Public Media is a reporting collaboration focused on issues of food, fuel and field. Based at KCUR in Kansas City, Harvest also is a partner of Innovation Trail.