As Lauren Jones grew up in rural Iowa, she watched her extended family lose options for groceries one by one. Jones grew up in Clarinda, a town of about 5,000 people served by two grocery stores, but most of her extended family was based in nearby Hamburg, which had fewer than 1,100 residents by the year 2017. 

“I really watched this affect my family from a young age. I remember [when] I was little and there was still a grocery store in Hamburg, I loved going there with my grandma,” Jones recalled. “When they lost that grocery store it was really devastating, especially for those who couldn’t drive because they didn’t have a vehicle, or because they were elderly.” 

Now a student at Iowa State University, Jones has a plan to reach those customers with the Modern Milkman, a food truck-style grocery subscription service that targets communities without an accessible grocery store, delivering select perishables such as bread, milk, butter, eggs and some produce. 

The idea stemmed from years of her family casually imagining the concept. For Jones, who has a major in entrepreneurship and a minor in design studies, the concept finally clicked as she applied for and was accepted to the 2019 CYstarters cohort at ISU. 

By the end of the cohort, Jones and the Modern Milkman became one of five student startups to accept $1,000 after the CYstarters Accelerator’s Demo Day presentations

Following CYstarters, Jones is at work scaling the Modern Milkman to meet community needs.

Jones is partnering with food distributor Sysco during her fall period to provide the groceries, and she manages the delivery of products to her five trial customers in southwest Iowa. Her average customer would live about 20 miles from a dedicated grocery store, she said. 

The original order box has enough groceries for two people, although customers can add to their orders for more people. Jones is targeting towns of about 1,000 people or fewer, with special consideration of the number of elderly residents who may be unable to drive to neighboring communities. By the end of 2020, Jones is seeking to expand from Hamburg to a second community in southwest Iowa. 

She’s in the process of developing a web platform for the Modern Milkman, through which clients may subscribe — but she also plans to accept mail-order forms from her clients, who may be older or unable to access web services. 

Even when she was accepted into the CYStarters program, Jones knew she would struggle with the aftermath of Hamburg’s immense flooding in early 2019. 

“I think it’s a double-edged sword. I’ve thought about that a lot over the summer,” Jones said. “I thought maybe with the flooding, this business couldn’t exist or shouldn’t exist. What I’ve learned over the summer is that there are less people in Hamburg now, but the people that are there need it more. … They are fighters, and they’re fighting for their community. I think that’s very positive for any business that wants to start in Hamburg.” 

“I think a lot of times people in rural communities feel marginalized,” she added. “They feel left on the outskirts, and people don’t think of them. I want to help people feel seen, feel heard, and I want people to be able to have their basic needs met.”