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How an empty St. Petersburg lot became a haven to feed the hungry

Outside an abandoned grocery store, people line up for hours to get fresh produce.
Published Nov. 22|Updated Dec. 2

ST. PETERSBURG — At 8 a.m. on a recent Saturday, Bruce Hines picks a shady spot to settle in for the wait.

The food won’t be handed out until two hours later, but he’s learned it’s important to be early. He’s eager for fresh vegetables.

He leans against the glass windows of an abandoned Walmart that borders the lot — where aisles of barren shelves and rows of checkout registers sit empty like a grocery store graveyard.

It’s here that they assemble week after week — some on foot, hundreds in cars, one in a golf cart — in a line that snakes nearly a half mile down the road from Tangerine Plaza on 22nd Street South. They’re here to get food that will prevent them from going hungry.

Related: As St. Petersburg’s Tangerine Plaza sits empty, a food desert’s impact persists
Mark Peters, 70, waits in line at the food drive in Tangerine Plaza. Peters lives nearby in the Tangerine Mobile Home Park. He uses the golf cart to bring home food for himself and neighbors. He has been coming every Saturday for four months.
Mark Peters, 70, waits in line at the food drive in Tangerine Plaza. Peters lives nearby in the Tangerine Mobile Home Park. He uses the golf cart to bring home food for himself and neighbors. He has been coming every Saturday for four months. [ Jennifer Glenfield ]

Over the course of the morning, volunteers will hand out boxes full of produce and pantry items. More than 300 people will walk — or drive — away with cartons of eggs and gallons of milk, bread and pastries and cereal. They’ll leave with bags of bananas, and apples and meats that they’ll feed to their families.

Hines, 56, points out a painful paradox.

“You got a food drive where a grocery store used to be because they left the African American community,” he says of the shuttered store. “People are hungry. All we got is empty lots.”

• • •

Tangerine Plaza in South St. Petersburg is the site of a decades-long development controversy. Businesses have opened and closed here for the better part of this century, offering the predominantly Black population in Midtown access to healthy food, and then yanking it away.

First, it was Sweetbay. Then, the Walmart, but that closed in 2017. The flagship building has been unoccupied ever since.

It’s a story that’s played out across the United States, where supermarkets disappear from low-income neighborhoods and residents go without food.

Now, in this parking lot of long-abandoned grocery stores, the weekly food drive exists to meet people’s needs.

Related: Walmart is pulling out of St. Petersburg's Midtown neighborhood
Cars line up for several blocks down 18th Ave. S. waiting for the food drive at Tangerine Plaza in St. Petersburg on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2002.
Cars line up for several blocks down 18th Ave. S. waiting for the food drive at Tangerine Plaza in St. Petersburg on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2002. [ Jennifer Glenfield ]

The faces in line are friendly and familiar. Like many gathered, Hines grew up in this neighborhood.

Behind him is a former classmate from elementary school. Another, he’s known for almost 30 years. On the ground where he’s standing, he used to cut grass for money, back when there were houses here.

Hines remembers when it was a community — with block parties and barbecues. People knew each other. That’s changed. His children, and the children of the people he grew up with, all have left St. Petersburg for better opportunities. They’re the lucky ones, he said.

Bruce Hines, 56, prepares to leave with food he collected at the food drive in Tangerine Plaza in St. Petersburg on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2002.
Bruce Hines, 56, prepares to leave with food he collected at the food drive in Tangerine Plaza in St. Petersburg on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2002. [ Jennifer Glenfield ]

The food desert, which spans all five of Midtown’s major census tracts, doesn’t help.

“Everyone’s sending their money over to Ukraine, for what?” Hines asks, as the line behind him grows. “There’s a hometown war in hunger right here on U.S. soil.”

• • •

Kara’lynne Brubaker, who started the food drive at the beginning of the pandemic, has no problem putting people to work.

She’s like a director, assigning tasks and keeping the operation on track.

Liberty McPhearson, 13, of Admiral Farragut Academy, passes out cabbages in the car line. She recently moved to the area and this is her first time volunteering with the food drive at Tangerine Plaza in St. Petersburg on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2002.
Liberty McPhearson, 13, of Admiral Farragut Academy, passes out cabbages in the car line. She recently moved to the area and this is her first time volunteering with the food drive at Tangerine Plaza in St. Petersburg on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2002. [ Jennifer Glenfield ]

On this Saturday morning, hands form a conveyor belt; passing, sorting, packaging perishables into bags to be distributed.

Brubaker checks the time and signals for a teen lurking in the corner to pass out fruits. He says he can’t; he’s allergic to pineapple.

“Are you allergic to pineapple or are you allergic to work?” she asks with a wink, before putting him on bread duty instead.

Mark Peters, 70, inspects the food he was given at the food drive in Tangerine Plaza in St. Petersburg on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2002.
Mark Peters, 70, inspects the food he was given at the food drive in Tangerine Plaza in St. Petersburg on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2002. [ Jennifer Glenfield ]

The food drive is an extension of Brubaker’s faith-based nonprofit, Positive Impact Worldwide. The organization is focused on fighting food insecurity and poverty in St. Petersburg.

But providing sustenance takes a full community effort.

Pallets of food are donated from stores like Publix, Aldi and Sam’s Club. The nonprofit Feeding Tampa Bay supplies a truckload weekly. High school students volunteer. Often, people in line help with set up, too.

“Anything we can get, we take,” Brubaker said.

At first it was just neighbors who came by the food line.

But with inflation and housing costs on the rise, Brubaker said, more and more people are struggling.

Volunteers hand out bags of carrots during a Saturday morning food drive in the parking lot of Tangerine Plaza in St. Petersburg on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2002.
Volunteers hand out bags of carrots during a Saturday morning food drive in the parking lot of Tangerine Plaza in St. Petersburg on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2002. [ Jennifer Glenfield ]

They learn about the food giveaway through a Google search or on Facebook and drive or bus in from other parts of the county. Some come in Subarus, Kias and old beater Hondas. Others arrive in Mercedes. There’s a sparkling Suburban in line, with tan leather seats, that looks like it goes through the car wash daily.

“It can be anybody going hungry,” Brubaker said.

The hope — she said — is that the nonprofit will be greenlit by the city to buy the property, so they can continue the work from a building instead of the outdoor lot. They’ve submitted a proposal to convert the abandoned store into a culinary arts center to promote healthy eating. There, they’d continue to operate a pantry.

Until then, Brubaker said, the organization’s most pressing need is a box truck. Right now, they use a pickup to collect the donated items. It takes a lot of extra energy, time and gas. A box truck would increase their capacity to serve.

“It’s what I’ve been praying for,” Brubaker said. “It’s what we really need.”

• • •

The first box of food is handed out just before 10 a.m. Hines accepts it, smiling, before loading it into the basket attached to the back of his purple tricycle.

The parking lot buzzes with energy — a current of gratitude mixed with relief.

“There’s good stuff in here,” Hines says, sifting through the items. “This is gonna feed a lot of people this week.”

He turns to an older woman in line and offers her help with her groceries.

Related: How the teens of St. Pete Youth Farm fight food insecurity, one harvest at a time
• • •

Need food?

What: Positive Impact Worldwide food drive

When: Food is handed out from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. (or until the line is served) every Saturday. If you arrive by car, expect a long wait. If you arrive by foot, you can approach the blue tent in the parking lot to be served.

Where: 1794 22nd St. S, St Petersburg. The line for vehicles forms from east of the lot, along 18th Ave. South.

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