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Community Voices: More than 900 days on a gas station diet

Wendy Wesley

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Welcome to the Catalyst’s Community Voices platform. We’ve curated community leaders and thinkers from all parts of our great city to speak on issues that affect us all. Visit our Community Voices page for more details.

As of this writing, a 42-block area of St. Petersburg has been without a full-service grocery store for more than 900 days. In that time St. Petersburg has elected a new mayor, and half of a City Council, and it is poised to elect the other half within the next few months.

Consider all this activity with nary a word from those in office or running regarding the lack of affordable and nutritious foods available in the area, and the negative impact on health this creates.

I am a clinical dietitian at a local acute care hospital and, every day, I educate and treat patients with diabetes, heart disease and kidney failure who live in the 42-block area. My patients cannot properly manage their diseases on a gas station and convenience store diet that offers low fiber, low nutrient, high sodium and high sugar foods with an even higher price tag.

Many local social service agencies are in the game and aware of the problem, including the St. Pete Free Clinic, Daystar and the Youth Farm at Enoch Davis. However, gardens and food pantries are not the answer to food insecurity. Nor are city-sponsored shuttle services to Walmart or pop-up produce carts.

At the Enoch Davis Youth Farm organizing event, I met a man who learned I was a dietitian; he asked me a slew of questions about food and diabetes. I learned he is a middle-aged man with a past medical history of Type II diabetes, congestive heart failure and chronic kidney disease at the fourth stage, which is pre-dialysis.

With several hospitalizations under his belt over the past two years, he pointed to the closing of the Walmart grocery store as the fast catalyst for his worsening health.

“I used to walk there,” he said. “Every other day I walked there and got fresh vegetables and fruits, nuts and other stuff that I would store in my room.”

“So, how do you get groceries now?” I asked.

“I don’t,” he answered. “Since that store closed I’ve been eating junk from a gas station. Chips and crackers and stuff. And that’s when things got bad for me.”

He suspected his current convenience store and gas station diet was exacerbating his heart failure and kidney failure. I confirmed that managing diabetes on highly processed diet was difficult because of added sugars and lack of fiber. He seemed despondent and hopeless – and I was, too.

Not only is this diet exacerbating his diseases, his food costs have tripled. Consider a gallon of milk at a gas station or convenience store can cost $5, and a dozen eggs $3.75. This compared to $2.59 and 75 cents, respectively, at Aldi across town.

What is the solution? More hand wringing? More shuttles to the mega Walmart?

One promising solution in the works is the One Community Grocery Co-Op, which pledges to follow a road-tested national model of forming grocery co-ops designed by the Food Co-Op Initiative. One Community must recruit 300 members to finish Phase 1 and is seeking financial support for marketing to recruit more members. Co-ops work in cities like Tallahassee and Minneapolis, and will thrive here, too.

Yes, Beach Drive and downtown are booming. Tourism and the arts are flourishing. We have an enviable restaurant and nightlife scene. All these things make St. Petersburg, my hometown, sparkle.

But many in our community are marginalized, left behind and hindered by a lack of leadership, action and vision.

St. Petersburg is only as good as its poorest and sickest residents.

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