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Forty minutes into Monday’s Suncoast Tiger Bay Club virtual forum The Face of Hunger: Food Insecurity in Our Community, one viewer’s observation and question seemed to explode one of the most common misconceptions about this hot-button, and critically important, topic.
“Confirming that nutrition inequity exists all across St. Pete and not just on the southern side,” she said, then asked: “This issue affects all communities – unfortunately, though, it’s concentrated in South St. Pete. Correct?”
Mandy Cloninger, Feeding Tampa Bay’s Chief Impact Officer, fielded the query.
Hunger, she said, is “in your back yard. One in four children are hungry; one in six neighbors are hungry … I would imagine there’s even someone on this call who experiences food insecurity and is stretching their budget. So it’s an inner city, rural and urban problem. It’s suburban. It’s literally all across our community.”
Cloninger’s fellow panelists were Julie Rocco, Senior Community Engagement Advocate – Research & Evaluation, Foundation for a Healthy St. Pete, and nutritionist and food policy activist Wendy Wesley.
All three addressed food insecurity in Tampa Bay, the effect it has on low-income households and seniors with medical and/or mobility issues, and the move to alleviate hunger in these particularly troubled times. Said Cloninger: “We used to use the analogy ‘Picture 10 Raymond James Stadiums filled with hungry people all across Tampa Bay, because that’s how many.’ You throw in a pandemic, and it nearly tripled that number.’”
Healthypeople.gov defines food insecurity as “the disruption of food intake or eating patterns because of lack of money and other resources,” adding “food insecurity does not necessarily cause hunger, but hunger is a possible outcome of food insecurity.”
Wesley, who has long advocated for the availability of nutritious food choices on St. Petersburg’s south side, explained that dollar stores – “the fastest-growing retailers in the country” – are not acceptable substitutions for grocery stores and produce stands, within a reasonable distance of home. Transportation – the inability to easily get to nutritious food – is often a key factor is creating a “food desert.”
Dollar General, which has four locations on the south side, has begun a program called DG Fresh, placing fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy products in a specially-created section of the store.
The St. Petersburg locations have not yet introduced DG Fresh, she added, but when they do “we’ll have nutrient-dense foods at an affordable price in our communities.”
Similarly, Wesley bemoaned the closing of the Walmart at Tangerine Plaza, but said a lease is imminent for a 10,000-square-foot grocery store at the site.
“The city,” she said, “feels confident that they can get Walmart to budge, and allow this local grocer, Taste of the Islands, to come in. I’m pleased that the grocer is local, but I think a co-op model, many co-op models throughout the city are needed. I think the co-op idea is fantastic. That’d the way to move the needle – individuals owning where they shop and shopping where they own.”
Co-ops, delivery services and the proliferation of food distribution sites can make a dent in the city’s hunger issues, the panelists agreed.
Also key is a desire for helping others, and for solving this most solvable of problems.
Established in December, Rocco said, the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg’s Food Policy Council, 25 members strong, is meeting regularly to help city government create an equitable, community-based food system.
There are a multitude of ways to get involved with fighting food insecurity. “If you’re passionate about something, you’ll find our community allows everybody’s passion to be fully expressed,” Rocco said, adding that she believes “healthy, nutritional food access is a right. What is your role in helping to move that needle forward?”
The problem of course, was exacerbated when Covid closed schools; children aren’t receiving their regular, nutrient-rich meals. The panel discussion was moderated by Hillary Van Dyke, Professional Development Specialist, Equity for Pinellas County Schools.
Cloninger explained that at the peak of the pandemic, her organization “purchased more food than we ever have in our history, through partnerships with city and county government and philanthropy.
“But we can’t throw more food at this problem. We’ve really got to address the systems change, and I think that’s where the Feeding America network and lots of folks in the nonprofit space, our public-private partnerships and our health care partnerships are really thinking differently about this now.
“In addressing hunger and food insecurity we have to address the root causes – systemic racism and poverty.”
The video recording of The Face of Hunger: Food Insecurity in Our Community will be available on this site March 31.