During the darkest days of pandemic, when everyone was staying inside and working from home, Wendy Wesley remembers feeling a profound sense of loneliness.
“I wondered ‘is there anyone else out there and does anyone else feel like I do?” said Wesley, a registered dietitian, food activist and health education manager for the St. Petersburg Free Clinic. “I felt like I must be the only one who feels this way.”
As the city slowly came back to life and people started venturing out to restaurants and shops, Wesley soon realized that she was far from alone in her feelings of isolation. That Covid-19 has impacted all of us in significant ways, both physically and emotionally. And that we all miss the ordinary, everyday aspects of life that we took for granted before the pandemic.
Wesley, who recently filed paperwork to run for the St. Petersburg City Council District 4 seat next year, sat down with the St. Pete Catalyst to talk about what life has been like during the pandemic, how it has impacted issues surrounding food insecurity and what she envisions the future will look like in St. Pete.
The Catalyst: When did you first become really aware of Covid?
WW: On March 17 when Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson said they were positive. The NBA stopped playing, the president came on television and made an announcement. Everything felt like it was changing rapidly in a tiny little span of time.
Did the early days of Covid remind you of any other experiences you’ve had?
Being born and raised here, it made me think of getting ready for a hurricane, preparing your home and buying supplies and doing whatever you can to stay safe. But normally hurricanes give us many days and weeks of warning, and this gave us no warning. One minute we’re open, the next, we’re closed.
As someone who is very tuned in to the issue of food insecurity, did you immediately worry how Covid might impact people’s ability to get food?
I wouldn’t say immediately, because no one was really sure or understood the amount of time this would last. I’m surprised that it’s this many months later and we’re still here with it. I had no idea it would be something that would go on and on and have such a profound impact on jobs and income and food and housing and all kinds of other things that marginalized people are teetering on the edge about anyway. Then this happens and the very vulnerable people fall very hard very quickly.
You were doing live cooking classes at the Free Clinic pre-pandemic. How has that changed?
One day I set up a stack of books and pushed record on my iPhone and started talking about diabetes and nutrition and salt and sugar and cooking, and then I pushed play and I thought “that doesn’t look half bad.” It surprised me how easy it was to do the videos and share them. Before Covid, I would have students come in and everyone would get a cutting board and an onion or a pepper and I’d show them how to cut them because a lot of people don’t know how to do basic veggie prep. It was very hands-on and dynamic and I wanted it to be very simple so everyone walked away feeling successful.
How has Covid affected the Free Clinic and the services it provides?
The demand for emergency food has tripled. It really hit me when we started seeing 300-400 cars a day, and on Thursdays, which are our busiest days, sometimes we’ll see 700 cars coming through the food pantry. The good thing is that about 70 percent of the food we give out is fresh – fresh meat, dairy and produce. We’re looking to meet the needs of not just food insecurity but nutrition insecurity. I’m really proud of the Free Clinic and the work they’re doing to provide food to the community.
Are you seeing many people coming through who have never been to a food pantry?
A lot of them have never sought assistance before and they’re very new to receiving social services. I hear a lot of gratitude from people coming through to pick up their food. They’ll tell us “thanks, we love you, what would we do without you?” Our staff and volunteers are working crazy hours at a very fast pace to meet the need. It’s been interesting and exciting.
As this continues, are you worried about more food deserts being created?
There was a Winn-Dixie on 4th Street around 75th Avenue that closed in February and there was a whole group of people who live east of 1st Street who live in mobile homes who relied on that Winn-Dixie. These are people who are elderly and on fixed incomes and having a grocery store that was within walking distance was important to them – and now it’s gone. Now they have to take public transportation which is challenging with groceries and in the heat we’ve had – it’s quite a haul for an elderly person in a mask with a pull cart in 95-degree heat. I’m concerned about more stores closing locally and that the most vulnerable populations won’t have access to the food that they require to manage their chronic diseases. I’m also concerned about local produce stands; they play a very vital role in how people access fresh fruits and vegetables in our community. I hope we don’t lose them, and I’m hopeful our restaurants can hold on and bounce back.
How has Covid, along with your personal activism, impacted your decision to run for city council?
I used to work at St. Anthony’s as a clinical dietitian on the cardiac and stroke floors, and working there opened my eyes. I could see there were parts of the city that lacked access to what a lot of us take for granted and I started writing about it. This started two years ago, this idea of activism, and then it merged into running for public office. People have told me I should run and I pooh-poohed it. But when I attended the Women’s March, I got inspired to look at a problem in my community and see what I could do to fix it or advocate for people affected by it.
Has Covid had any affect on your decision to run?
I was already looking around exploring things, talking to people and asking questions well before Covid but now it’s hit double and triple time to plug in and see how I can make a difference in my hometown. It’s not just food; I’ve had to broaden my vision. I’m looking at transportation, affordable housing, safe neighborhoods, safe streets, places for kids to play and, increasingly, racism as a public health issue. It grows the deeper you look. It makes us ask where do we want to be in 20 years? Is this a place that’s fair and equitable for everyone?
How do you anticipate Covid affecting the community’s mental health in the future?
I’ve talked to some local mental health professionals who say the need for services is greater than ever, alcohol and drug dependence and overdoses are up and then a lot of the local recovery community hasn’t been able to function as it has in the past. I think there’s going to be a bit of a catch-up period, and I’m afraid a lot of people won’t be able to get caught up and there may be some negative consequences for them.
Are there any positives you see coming out of the pandemic?
I think a lot of us realized how much we missed our city. When she comes back, she’s going to roar back. I don’t just mean the businesses and the bars; I think our city has a certain spirit, a joie de vivre. We love living here and this experience has made it so much more precious. Perhaps we will enjoy our city more and its citizens and not take living here for granted.