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South St. Pete produce stand sues federal government over denied EBT eligibility

Megan Holmes

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Dorian and Maria Speaker, owners of AMR Movers and their produce stand, Corner Garden Produce.

There is no full-service grocery store within a 42-block area of south St. Petersburg. From 4th Avenue South to 45th Avenue South, and 34th St. to downtown there are six “dollar” stores, but none of them sell fresh produce.

That 42-block area is notoriously unable to support a grocery store. Walmart and SweetBay, in the same location at Tangerine Plaza, both shuttered within a few short years of one another. Nothing has opened to fill the space.

Dorian Speaker and his wife Maria Speaker recently sought to change that. In January 2019, they opened Corner Garden Produce on their property at 2300 4th Avenue South. The Speakers purchased the property from Dorian’s family in 2015 and moved their main business, America’s Most Reliable (AMR) Movers into the space. Dorian’s grandfather, Willie Davis, previously owned a cement finishing business at that location, for 45 years.

They wanted to help the community and assuage the complaints of their daughter, a vegetarian, who often remarked abut the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables near the family business, where the family spends much of their time.

According to Maria, who oversees to the day-to-day operations of Corner Garden Produce, nearby residents would often walk over, pick out a bag of fresh produce and attempt to pay with their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) assistance, known as food stamps. Time and again, Maria would have to explain that they couldn’t accept them. Inevitably, she explained, she would end up giving the produce to those neighbors anyway, for free.

In July 2019, Corner Garden Produce sought permission from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to participate in SNAP. But a month later, the Agriculture Department permanently denied the produce stand’s request.

The Department of Agriculture cited Dorian Speaker’s 2001 misdemeanor for “resisting a police officer without violence,” which the agency said suggests a “lack of business integrity.”

Now, the Speakers have filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture citing the wrongful denial of its bid to accept EBT. They’ve hired attorney Andrew Tapp of Metropolitan Law Group in Tampa, one of the leading experts in the nation in USDA SNAP cases.

St. Pete Catalyst first profiled the Speakers in 2019, when AMR Movers was awarded a place-based grant through the South St. Petersburg Community Revitalization Area. At that time, the Speakers invested $40,000 (matched by the City of St. Petersburg, to the allowed maximum of $20,000) to revitalize their property. Their business today is unrecognizable – the renovations and the produce stand they built as part of those renovations have drastically changed the way the Speakers do business.

Tapp told the Catalyst that the Speakers’ case is similar to a recent case he represented in Oregon, Astoria v. United States. In that case, Tapp successfully argued that the rules created around SNAP in the late ’90s rest solely on convictions for business-related charges like fraud, forgery, or misrepresentation.

Tapp argues charges outside of those, like Speaker’s 19-year-old misdemeanor, are not grounds for permanent denial, as they have no bearing on business integrity. Tapp said the U.S. Department of Agriculture has a long history of making subjective judgments of character for small business owners, in an effort to discourage them from applying to accept EBT.

Regardless, Tapp said he expects that the USDA will double down on the denial, which he described as “overzealous” and hurtful to small business. According to Tapp, the USDA is denying small businesses the ability to accept EBT in order to drive consumers to larger stores like Walmart.

Representatives of the U.S. Department of Agriculture did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Check back with the St. Pete Catalyst for further updates as the lawsuit progresses.

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