Click the arrow above to listen to the full audio interview with St. Petersburg City Council Member Gina Driscoll and dietitian Wendy Wesley.
Food insecurity and its repercussions on health are front and center issues for City Council Member Gina Driscoll and dietitian/food advocate Wendy Wesley.
Wesley, who works in the cardiac unit of a local hospital, sees the serious negative impacts on health every day. It’s not for lack of education, Wesley believes, but access. “They know what to do, they want to do better,” said Wesley. “But they have no access to nutrient-dense food that can help control diabetes, lessen the effects of heart disease and eventually prevent them from kidney failure and dialysis.”
“Many of my patients are existing on a gas station/convenience store diet because that’s really all that’s available to them,” she explained. “Transportation is a major issue and I’ve actually had a few patients for whom storage is an issue, lack of refrigeration, lack of safe places to keep their food.”
This is often an “out of sight, out of mind” problem for residents of the city who live in food-rich areas with abundant options for healthy groceries. “If you live in a neighborhood where there’s a Publix across the street from another Publix, and a WholeFoods right down the street and a Trader Joe’s and then a Winn Dixie, it’s not in your immediate sphere to understand food insecurity,” Wesley explained, evoking images of St. Petersburg’s 4th Street N.
Wesley began asking St. Pete City Council members for their take on the food insecurity issues of South St. Petersburg through our Community Voices platform. Council Member Gina Driscoll was the first to respond, now the two are teaming up to find solutions.
“It’s a big problem,” said Driscoll. “There’s one neighborhood, or one area of our city in South St. Petersburg that is in a food desert … the closest traditional grocery store is a mile away.”
The Walmart Neighborhood Market at Tangerine Plaza shuttered in March 2017, the latest of the site’s long-troubled history through three mayoral administrations. It has seen two major grocery stores open and close since 2005. Since Walmart shut its doors nearly three years ago, the only options for residents in a 42-block area of South St. Petersburg lacking transportation options are convenience stores and gas stations, where fresh food is nearly impossible to find.
According to Driscoll, it’s unlikely that the free market will solve the problem. “Within that area, the average household income is about $35,000, the average household size is about 2.93. So you’ve got three people on average living in a home on $35,000 a year,” said Driscoll. “That’s not going to attract a Publix or a Winn Dixie. So in areas like that we really do have to be creative about our solutions, because the traditional solutions simply are not going to be available to us.”
Driscoll and Wesley are working on a number of creative solutions to the problem, including nonprofit grocery stores and grocery co-ops. While other solutions like food trucks can help alleviate some of the severity of the problem, Driscoll and Wesley agree they’re not long-term solutions.
“I want people to be able to have access to healthy foods anytime they want, and not just when a truck is going to show up or when free food is being given out, said Driscoll. “Every person deserves that, and in St. Petersburg we have to make it our mission to ensure that every single person who lives in this city has easy access to healthy and affordable food.”
“There are two USDA designated food deserts in St. Petersburg, the term nutrition equity comes up a lot,” said Wesley. “True nutrition equity means being able to go and buy your groceries at any time, 7 days a week during normal store hours of, say, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Having to wait for a period of time on Tuesday, say 2-4, is in my opinion, not true nutrition equity.”
Part of the solution is recognizing and sharing the problem, she explained. She encouraged everyone to get involved in solutions like One Community Co-op, to become an active participant in the fight against food insecurity, and to draw awareness to the problem. “The playing field is not level in St. Petersburg,” Wesley said. “And it’s as simple as food.”
Other innovative solutions could come from proposals for Tangerine Plaza, said Driscoll. In the next coming weeks, the City of St. Petersburg will be releasing a new request for proposals for the site. Driscoll is encouraging anyone with a viable idea for the site to submit their plan, under one condition: it must include a grocery option.