TAMPA — Mayor Bob Buckhorn hasn't met a ribbon-cutting he doesn't like. One day he went to six, smiling for photos and speaking at each. Last week, he went to a groundbreaking of a Walmart supercenter in east Tampa, another seemingly routine event.
His message was anything but.
"This has been a food desert for a long time," Buckhorn said. "The folks in east Tampa have had to rely on convenience stores and get charged exorbitant prices for food that's not particularly healthy. … Now there will be healthy alternatives available."
Food deserts refer to nutritional wastelands lacking in supermarkets. Most are located in low-income or rural communities, where many residents don't have cars or reliable public transportation and live on fast food and gas station grub.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates 23.5 million Americans live in food deserts, making them more likely to suffer or die from a diet-related disease. It defines food deserts as a census tract where more than 20 percent of the population lives below poverty and more than one-third lives at least a mile from the nearest grocery store in urban areas and 10 miles in rural areas.
Food deserts dot the Tampa Bay area, with concentrations in central and east Tampa, south St. Petersburg, Zephyrhills, Dade City, Hudson and Spring Hill. Hillsborough County leads with about 40 identified food deserts, followed by Pasco's 25 and Pinellas' 20. Among the most noted are in south St. Petersburg, where the city spent more than a million dollars to attract a grocery store to Midtown, one of the city's poorest neighborhoods.
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Talk about food deserts surfaced in the mid 1990s but intensified several years ago when first lady Michelle Obama took aim at eliminating them. Through her initiatives, hundreds of millions of dollars are spent annually to bring fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and low-fat dairy to underserved neighborhoods. The theory is that if people have better access to grocery stores, they will rely less on greasy junk food for daily meals.
Despite these efforts and other eat-healthy campaigns, more than one-third of adults are overweight or obese, according to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among children, about 17 percent are obese.
Walmart, Walgreens and other retailers have made well-publicized commitments to build stores in food deserts. Earlier this year, Whole Foods Market created Whole Cities Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to improving access to healthy food.
In 2011, Walmart announced it would open 275 to 300 stores in USDA-identified food deserts over the next five years, saying "every single person should have access to an abundant selection of fresh fruits and vegetables at an affordable price."
The Walmart supercenter in east Tampa, at 1720 E Hillsborough Ave., is surrounded by fast-food restaurants. There's a McDonald's next door, a Checkers across the street and a Burger King, Popeye's and KFC close by. The nearest grocery store — Winn-Dixie — is more than a mile away.
Walmart paid $4.95 million for the site, which once housed a Chevrolet car dealership but has been vacant for years. The store is expected to open late next spring, joining more than 3,200 supercenters nationwide.
Opening the store will expand healthy food options in the neighborhood but won't guarantee shoppers change what they put in their stomachs, as one report has shown.
"People's food choices are not solely governed by their proximity to supermarkets," said Gregory Mills, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., who has studied food deserts. "It's the unfortunate reality that people may make poor choices even when they have a high range of options. We are creatures of habit."
Initially, shoppers are likely to choose many of the same items they bought at convenience stores, corner bodegas and dollar stores, he said. They know what their families like and can't afford to experiment with kiwi, kale and other less familiar products.
"Part of the dilemma is how to educate people to make healthy choices," Mills said. "Fresh fruits and vegetables are more expensive than other items."
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Whole Foods made big news last year when it opened a location in one of the poorest parts of Detroit, where half of residents live in poverty. To attract them, Whole Foods focused on its more affordable, generic items, placed nutritionists in the community and hosted classes on how to shop on a budget.
Retailers don't open in food deserts out of the goodness of their hearts. It's a business decision.
"Ultimately, a store has to be sustainable," said Mari Gallagher, a researcher who wrote a study about Chicago's food deserts. "Sometimes there are cases where a chain store will stretch a little bit, but if they know from the start it wouldn't be successful, they will be hard-pressed to go into the market."
Bringing grocery stores to underserved markets provides chains good opportunities to expand, she said. It fills in gaps between stores, reduces distribution and advertising costs, and boosts a retailer's share of the shopping pie. Sometimes, urban areas with tough-to-find real estate are the last frontier.
Opening supermarkets where others have failed — or haven't tried — is not necessarily a recipe for failure. Stores close for a variety of reasons, from management issues to wrong price points, Gallagher said.
That was the case for St. Petersburg's first grocery store in Midtown. Public officials fought for years to land a store, finally spending $1.4 million on a shopping center for a Sweetbay Supermarket, which was then called Kash n' Karry.
Sweetbay stood for years as a victory against food deserts until the Tampa-based grocer abruptly closed it last year as part of a restructuring that led to the chain's sale to Bi-Lo Holdings, which owns Winn-Dixie. Desperate to replace it with another grocery store, city officials reached out to Walmart, which was looking for sites in food deserts. Walmart liked that there was an existing building and figured a discount retailer would go over well in the community.
The Walmart supercenter on Hillsborough has a better chance of succeeding than a traditional grocery store would because of its low prices and broad offerings, from food to clothing to electronics.
Shoppers used to going to different stores will be able get everything under one roof — a plus for people without a car. Someone buying a TV might head to the grocery section to grab dinner rather than hit the drive-through on the way home.
"All things considered, these are positive developments for the local community," Mills said. "Whether people take advantage of these new stores is an open question. But in the long term, certainly there's an opportunity to make better food choices."
Times news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which uses information from Times files. Contact Susan Thurston at email@example.com or (813) 225-3110. Follow @susan_thurston.