A City Council member is working to make nutritious food more widely available in St. Petersburg.
Council Vice Chairman Gina Driscoll introduced a resolution in a council committee Thursday morning that declares food is a human right in the city and that urges the establishment of clear goals to increase nutritious food access. The resolution calls on the city’s administration to use tools such as zoning, land development regulations and incentives to achieve that goal.
“I really love the idea of establishing food as a human right in our city because that tells the whole world where we place nutritious food for our residents on our value scale. It puts it way up there,” Driscoll told the council’s Health, Energy, Resiliency & Sustainability Committee.
Her resolution cites a 2019 survey that found that 14.2 percent of households in Pinellas County experience nutrition insecurity, or the lack of access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development and an active and healthy lifestyle.
Driscoll worked on the resolution with the team from Healthy St. Pete, a city imitative to build a culture of health in the community.
Food access is a systems problem, said Kim Lehto, coordinator for Healthy St. Pete. It involves a lot of interconnected elements, including individuals, resources, policy and regulations required to produce, process, distribute, access, consume and dispose of food, and those elements are in turn connected to systems, such as transportation, housing, parks and recreation, and land, she said.
“Therefore we have a clear role to play in improving our city’s food environment by increasing access to culturally appropriate foods for all residents, particularly those living in our lower-income communities, that have current limited access and are at most risk for diet-related chronic disease,” Lehto said. “It’s our intention to focus our work on those areas of the city most affected by the structural and systemic factors that affect health equity, making them our healthy food priority areas.”
Healthy St. Pete already has begun groundwork to promote healthy food access, said Cassidy Mutnansky, health in all policies coordinator. She highlighted four efforts:
• Developing a healthy food retailer map that would include both supermarkets and grocery stores, as well as other retailers who could sell healthy foods.
• Coordination of existing efforts. “We’re trying to figure out what are the programs, policies, plans and upcoming projects that all of us are actively doing to get a better understanding and see where there could be more collaboration,” Mutnansky said. Healthy St. Pete has begun writing a draft survey to distribute to Food Policy Council, an independent advisory board for the city facilitated by the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg. The survey also could be used within city departments that are also focused food systems planning, she said.
• A “good neighbor store” program, or healthy corner store program, described by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a program that would provide greater access to healthy foods at convenience stores and bodegas. Healthy St. Pete wants to get input from stores in the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area.
• A program using buses and vans from faith-based organizations to help transport people to places where healthy food is available. Healthy St. Pete had some discussions with an interfaith organization about that idea before the Covid pandemic and now wants to restart those talks, she said.
The resolution will go to the full city council for approval at a later date.
The council committee — which includes Council members Brandi Gabbard and Darden Rice, in addition to Driscoll — unanimously approved a draft version of the resolution after debating some of the terminology in it.
The initial resolution described “food deserts” or geographical areas where residents’ access to affordable and healthy food options, especially fresh fruits and vegetables, is restricted or nonexistent due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient traveling distance.
The Healthy St. Pete team asked instead the resolution use the term “healthy food priority areas” to describe those geographic locations. Committee members said most people are more familiar with the term “food deserts” but Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin, who leads Healthy St. Pete, said the term “healthy food priority areas” is in keeping with industry standards.
“Words matter,” Tomalin said. “It is a reflection of our commitment and sophistication around this work, how we plan to approach it.”
Committee members amended the resolution to include both terms.
Driscoll initially proposed setting a goal of creating access to nutritious food within one mile of every resident in St. Pete. While Driscoll wanted to set a specific benchmark, Tomalin said that was an over-simplification.
“There are some neighborhoods that go for more than one mile. There are areas of great affluence for which that wouldn’t be the case and we have no intention to work to get a new grocery store or produce market built between Shore Acres and Old Northeast. That’s not the intent of this work,” Tomalin said.
The one-mile goal was struck in favor of language that said the resolution’s goal was to “develop spatial accessibility and affordability of nutritionally dense foods to create food stability for all St. Petersburg residents.”
In addition, the terms “food security” and “food insecurity” were changed.
“These days, more and more people are shifting to calling it ‘nutrition security’ or ‘nutrition insecurity’ to be very clear that we’re not talking about Cheetos here,” Driscoll said.
Council Chairman Ed Montanari, who also is a member of the committee, was absent at Thursday’s meeting.