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‘The need is real:’ Experts weigh in on food insecurity in Pinellas County

Jaymi Butler

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More than 134,000 Pinellas County residents are food insecure, according to data from Feeding Tampa Bay.

The issue of food insecurity remains prevalent in Pinellas County and will require collaboration, compassion and education to remove the stigma and find lasting solutions to this pervasive problem. 

These were some of the main takeaways from Wednesday’s virtual panel discussion on food insecurity from an intergenerational standpoint. During the hourlong event, which was hosted by St. Petersburg College’s Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions, panelists discussed national trends in food access along with what’s happening locally. Participating on the panel were:

All the panelists agreed that Covid-19 has exacerbated the issue of food insecurity. Yeagley said that the Free Clinic’s food bank distributed just over 11 million pounds of food in 2019. This year, they’ve already surpassed that number by a million pounds. Additionally, over the last 14 months, the Free Clinic has served an average of 20,000 people per month through its We Help food pantry, up from about 6,000 pre-Covid. 

“I think one of the things we’ve seen in this pandemic is the normalization of those who need services. Over half of the people we’re seeing now have never before visited a food pantry and never before sought assistance,” Bent said. “Now there’s a greater understanding that it’s OK to ask for help.”

Cooley echoed her point.

“It’s really important to get educated about this issue and understand that the need is real,” he said. “And [food insecurity] doesn’t just happen to ‘somebody else.’ It’s your neighbor. It’s my neighbor. I have seen people do everything right and work multiple jobs, do everything for their children, save as much money as they can and then one situation or one health event takes away everything that they’ve worked for and they find themselves needing help.”

One group that’s being hit especially hard by food insecurity is the senior population, Heckman said, and the AARP Foundation has been working to help get more older adults enrolled in SNAP by making the application process easier. In Florida, there are about 300,000 adults 60 and older who are eligible for the program and not enrolled. That needs to change, Heckman said.

“There is a lot of misinformation and stigma about the program,” she said. “We need everyone’s help to normalize the use of SNAP. This is a program that we pay into through our tax dollars and is available to all of us when we need that extra assistance to make sure we’re eating a healthful diet.”

In terms of legislative and policy decisions to address food insecurity, Yeagley said that lawmakers at all levels need to understand that a lot of what’s currently in place for people to qualify for services is “extraordinarily outdated” and hasn’t kept pace with the economy. That’s especially true in Pinellas County, she said, where low and middle income earners have seen their wages stagnate while their cost of living continues to increase. 

“I think one of the most powerful things that we can advocate for, even before funding on a policy level, is revisiting federal poverty levels and how we calculate them,” Yeagley said. “We need to look at how we can allow people to qualify for necessary, basic services and get into programs that will help them, their families, their aging parents and grandparents.”

The panelists also discussed the importance of making sure that the food people have access to is nutritious.

“We’ve placed a clear and direct emphasis on making sure the food we distribute is fresh and healthy,” Yeagley said of the Free Clinic. “Consistently, over 75 percent – and sometimes much more than that – of the food we give away is fresh produce, fresh meat and fresh dairy. We really want to be sure we’re contributing to the overall health of all of the generations in our community who may be finding their way to us for support.”

However, Bent added that simply handing out bags of healthy food isn’t enough any more.

“It’s about engaging with the individuals and helping them with things like recipes or food preparation or nutrition education,” she said. 

The connection between food insecurity and affordable housing also came up during the conversation, and Cooley said he’s definitely seen a correlation there. 

“People are having to pick and choose between whether they’re going to pay their rent or if they’re going to eat,” he said. “Making sure we have programming that addresses both of those needs simultaneously is helpful.”

Heckman added that when you’re talking about building affordable housing, you also have to build grocery stores. Otherwise, you end up with food deserts – areas with limited access to affordable and nutritious food. 

“This is an issue in Pinellas County as well as many other places,” she said. “Families can’t get to the grocery store because there isn’t one nearby. They may have access to a convenience store but there’s no produce there, or if there’s fresh milk you’re paying twice as much for it.”

Going forward, the panelists agreed that addressing food insecurity can serve as an entry point to finding solutions for other issues that may be adversely affecting families.

“If you’re coming to us in our health center, we are going to make the assumption that you could benefit from having other types of support as well,” Yeagley said. “We want to address these issues holistically and not in a vacuum.”

This is especially critical now as Covid-related stimulus funding and financial assistance are starting to run out, Cooley said. 

“We’re looking at quite the storm in addressing the health and security of our entire community, especially for our children and our older adults,” he said. “We need to start looking at new ways to address food insecurity and affordable housing.”

 

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