ST. PETERSBURG — Stay-at-home orders may be easing, but concern about the coronavirus pandemic’s effect on some of the city’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods has not.
A grassroots effort in mostly African-American neighborhoods is providing free hot meals, health kits with face masks and hand-sanitizing gel, and care packages of nonperishable foods. An informal distribution system of block captains, neighbors and friends gets the help to seniors and others in need.
The South St. Pete Community Response COVID-19 coalition came together as schools closed, seniors were urged to remain at home and jobs were lost.
“Folks overnight were out of a job, there was significant food insecurity, and we realized we could fill in some gaps,” said Michele Rayner-Goolsby, a Clearwater-based lawyer who lives in St. Petersburg.
But it was Eric Atwater, who operates Atwater’s restaurant at 22nd Avenue S and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street, who inspired the broad outreach. The corner eatery, started by his late parents, was where politicians once made pilgrimages to court black voters. Atwater decided early in the crisis to provide free lunches for children.
“I went to a local meat market, and I bought a couple hundred dollars of chicken, hamburgers and hot dogs,” he said.
Rayner-Goolsby and others wanted to help. The coalition now raises funds to support Atwater’s free meals and another effort in Childs Park, a neighborhood a few miles west. Atwater serves free breakfasts to everyone on Saturdays. And he serves lunches on weekdays to children and the adults who accompany them.
Carla Bristol, collaboration manager of the St. Pete Youth Farm, initially donated food for care packages and produce grown by the youth ambassadors. She is a leader of the coronavirus coalition.
“The first thing that I noticed, before anything else was started, was Eric was already feeding kids. He said the children want a hot, home-cooked meal. I loved the spirit of what he was saying,” Bristol said. "We take for granted that so many of us drive. What I like about the location is it is centrally located to four neighborhoods. Most people can walk to Atwater’s. Ninety-percent of the traffic we are getting is walk-up traffic.”
She gathered nonperishable food that would have been used by students in the farm program and took it to Atwaters, she said. At home, she sewed donated T-shirts into sturdy bags for food donations. She heard of a great deal on collard greens in Lakeland and the coalition bought 700 bundles.
Someone contributed 1,200 pounds of potatoes, and another her stimulus check to buy fish from a vendor she wanted to support. Bristol’s students made 280 kindness cards for the care packages distributed to seniors.
Each week, Bristol said, the coalition also receives 40 to 60 meals — donated through the Foundation
for a Healthy St. Petersburg — from Feeding Tampa Bay. Additionally, her group received seven gallons of sanitizer from a couple of donors, hand-sewn masks from a multicultural center in Jacksonville and hundreds more from local residents.
“Everybody is contributing, using their talents to help our community,” she said.
Food and health care kits also are distributed in Childs Park. Gospel Ministries at 4030 15th Avenue S is the distribution center for the effort, which includes free meals from food trucks twice a week.
Jabaar Edmond, vice president of the Childs Park Neighborhood Association and a member of the coronavirus team, said health care kits were vital. The St. Petersburg coalition used a block captain model to reach the elderly and others in need.
“People started volunteering. My wife went around and dropped off the packages," Edmond said. “We wanted to take care of the elderly and sick in the black community. We wanted to take a preventative step.”
Coalition members acknowledge the work of nonprofits in their community, but say they are providing additional help.
“We are filling in gaps. They are not going to catch everyone,” said Rayner-Goolsby, who is running for the District 70 seat in the Florida House of Representatives. “In my perspective, it is about working together, not against each other."
The group has drawn support from the Common Ground Project, a political advocacy group, and the Pay it Florida-Pinellas Coalition.
Temple Beth-El donated several hundred pounds of meat, cheese, fish, chicken and tater tots. The St. Petersburg synagogue men’s group had bought the food for pre-coronavirus events, including the Second Night Passover Seder and a bar mitzvah. Brotherhood president Steve Jenkins took the food to Atwater’s.
“They were putting the meals in to-go boxes. People came up on bicycles, people came by bus, people walked up," Jenkins said. "It was a wonderful opportunity to see the food we donated within 24 hours go to people in need.”
To donate to the program, go to cdatcenter.webs.com.