TAMPA — Several organizations are stepping up to supply the food deserts — areas where impoverished people have inadequate access to fresh food — with healthy nutrition and health education.
But the non-profits note that there's no magic bullet for solving the issue and each has to chip away at the problem.
The Hillsborough Commission on the Status of Women held a "Grocery Gap" conference last month to address "nutrition barriers" and create more collective efforts. Caitlyn Peacock, a project manager with the Network to End Hunger, said the gathering has generated added momentum for the movement.
"It was extremely encouraging to be there to hear all of these community leaders in the same place talking about solving this huge issue," Peacock said. "Everybody was thinking outside of the box."
So how many food deserts are in Hillsborough County? Lori Wright, University of South Florida professor and registered dietician, said there are about 10 designated areas where both access and affordability stand as hurdles. Citing a recent USF study, Wright said fresh fruits and vegetables cost three times as much in food deserts.
The trend results in higher obesity rates, and obesity can contribute to a plethora of other health problems. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the largest charity organization dedicated to health issues, ranks Hillsborough County 28th among Florida's 67 counties when it comes to obesity. Non-Hispanic black adults in Florida have an obesity rate of 35 percent.
Peacock said the deserts can't be allowed to go unaddressed.
"It's would be catastrophic," Peacock said. "That may sound like too harsh of a term, but it can't continue. If people don't have a chance to choose that healthy option — if all they can access is Snickers bars and soda — something is wrong with that.
"It doesn't work for anybody. It's costing health care too much, it's killing people. We have to scale these efforts up and keep growing and growing. We have to see a huge positive impact on the issue."
State Rep. Ed Narain recognizes the need. He partnered with the 100 Black Women of Tampa Bay for a "Florida Farm Share" event at Tampa's St. Johns Progressive Missionary Baptist Church earlier this month, providing free fresh groceries to more than 1,000 families.
"I believe that this is the first step in getting people the basic necessities that they need," Narain said. "The Times recently had a story on hunger and how it affects one in six adults and one in four children here in Florida. That should not be the case."
Florida Hospital Carrollwood, the YMCA and a partnership between Meals on Wheels and Feeding Tampa Bay also maintain ongoing projects to address the deficit.
Meals on Wheels delivers meals daily but struggles to find vegetables and fruits at a cost-conscious price. Feeding Tampa Bay has food to put in the hands of the needy, but often needs partners to help deliver it. Partnering with Meals on Wheels has resulted in a program that delivers fruits and vegetables to recipients once a week.
The YMCA has recently kicked off a Veggie Van program that reaches out to Hillsborough County food deserts, including Sulphur Springs. The YMCA's Elizabeth Roman said it offers a bag of fresh produce worth $12 but only asks the recipient to contribute $1.
Florida Hospital's Food Is Medicine program provides free health education and health screenings in low-income or low-access areas and then issues vegetable prescription vouchers redeemable for $10 worth of weekly produce.
Adults must regularly attend classes to continue receiving the vouchers. A pilot study conducted in the West River area of Tampa indicated 60 percent of the participants experienced a drop in blood-sugar levels.
Jan Baskin, marketing director and community benefit manager for Florida Hospital Carrollwood, said they are currently aligning with other systems and other hospitals to expand the program.
Times staff writer Ernest Hooper contributed to this report. Contact Samuel Johnson at [email protected]