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There’s a food desert in St. Petersburg. It’s not imaginary.

A grocery co-op conceived in 2017 is off to a slow start as it strives to build membership.
Ms. Betty Brown, 72, arrives home from Walmart with her groceries. Brown drives over two miles to get to the Walmart, the only shopping center available since two supermarkets closed in midtown, a predominately African American neighborhood. Ms. Brown says she is fortunate to have a car. Many other people she knows in the neighborhood who are elderly or disabled, rely on public transportation, making it hard to grocery shop. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times]
Published Nov. 1

ST. PETERSBURG — Kellie Mendheim used to be able to walk to the supermarket, dragging her shopping cart with groceries home for her family of five.

These days she catches a bus, or hitches a ride to a Walmart more than two miles away. Sometimes she just walks, carrying “five to six bags, 10 at the most,” since her cart broke. “If my kids need food, I’m going to make sure they get food, no if’s, and’s and but’s," she said.

Mendheim, 34, her boyfriend Christopher Knause, 45, who has Parkinson’s disease, and their three children live in a food desert. So does Betty Brown, a grandmother and great grandmother. And retired nurse Mary Thomas.

They are among the St. Petersburg residents who live in what the U.S. Department of Agriculture would define as a food desert — a low-income urban area where access to fresh, affordable, nutritious food is limited. The closest supermarket is almost 2 miles away.

Brown and Thomas are able to drive from their neighborhoods south of downtown to stores of their choice. But Brown finds it a strain.

“I’m 72 years old. I have arthritis in my left hip and it’s too far for me,” she said. “I feel as though we need a grocery store in our neighborhood. I thought by now we would have one.”

Ms. Betty Brown, 72, leaves Walmart with her groceries. Brown drives over two miles to get to the Walmart, the only shopping center available since two supermarkets closed in midtown, a predominately African American neighborhood. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times]

The predominantly African-American community that had no post office until 2005, and got a bank four years later, welcomed a Sweetbay supermarket the very year the post office named after a local civil rights lawyer opened. Residents despaired when the grocery pulled out in 2013, but were elated when a Walmart Neighborhood Market took its place early in 2014. In 2017, though, Walmart announced that it too would leave, deserting the Tangerine Plaza shopping center at 18th Avenue S and 22nd Street.

RELATED STORY: Walmart is pulling out of St. Petersburg's Midtown neighborhood

Some in the community decided to take matters into their own hands and began focusing on starting a grocery co-op. But the grassroots effort is off to a slow start, so far drawing only about 40 of the 300 members needed to take the effort to the next phase.

“My hope is that those who express the desire for ownership and opportunity for ownership would really become more involved and engaged, because now is the time," said Brother John Muhammad, vice president of the fledgling One Community Grocery Co-Op and president of the Childs Park Neighborhood Association, which is in a food desert.

"We can’t continue to put the responsibility on others to do for us what we can unite and do for ourselves,” Muhammad said.

An empty supermarket in Midtown's Tangerine Plaza in St. Petersburg on Aug. 3, 2017. The grocer's closure leaves the area without a major chain supermarket. (Times | 2017) [EVE EDELHEIT | Tampa Bay Times]

Organizers hoped to get city funding to help market the project, but have been unsuccessful so far. Council Member Gina Driscoll, who shepherded a request for $50,000, says she’ll try again next year. Meanwhile, co-op organizers offer a monthly $3 Meal program that functions as a fundraiser, membership drive and informational session.

“We have a real problem in our city with food insecurity," Driscoll said. "One of the greatest concentrations of this is in my district. No one in our city should be struggling to find good, healthy food, especially at a time when we are experiencing such prosperity in St. Petersburg. ... I want everyone to have a grocery store within easy walking distance.”

Driscoll said she is frustrated about the lack of progress at Tangerine Plaza. The city recently renewed a management agreement with the Sembler Co. for the plaza. “When you have a shopping center that has an anchor store and two or three other units that are vacant ... you have to ask, are they doing their job?” She said that a 2017 Tangerine Plaza Market Analysis "really illustrated the challenge that we have with luring a traditional grocery store in that shopping center.

RELATED STORY: Tangerine Plaza ideas: Housing? A farmers market? A skating rink?

“The challenge is that the city has talked with every major traditional grocery and none of them wants to be there. They’ve all said no. So it’s just a sad reality that the incomes in that part of our city are not seen as attractive to a corporate entity like a grocery chain. So we have to get creative,” Driscoll said.

The city’s goal for the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area, particularly Tangerine Plaza, “is to ensure long-term stability, not quick fixes or photo-ops for political purposes,” said Ben Kirby, Mayor Rick Kriseman’s spokesman. “That takes thoughtfulness and hard work. We work on this every single day. It is challenging to get large supermarkets to locate in neighborhoods, as they prefer major thoroughfares and heavily traveled corridors.”

An upcoming request for proposals for the plaza will require development on the site to have “a food component,” Kirby said, adding that the city “would be willing to enter into a private-public partnership to support a grocery store that may include" incentives through the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Plan.

After Walmart closed, the city arranged a free Saturday shuttle from Tangerine Plaza to another Walmart. It was discontinued. The shuttle was a pilot program that offered the opportunity “to collect data and determine if transportation was truly a barrier to access,” Kirby said. "It was not.” He provided figures showing 128 riders over the 13-week run. Mendheim, the mother of three, said she was among those who used the service.

According to the USDA, limited transportation means those who live in food deserts rely on small neighborhood stores that may not carry healthy foods and then, only at high prices.

Wendy Wesley, a co-op member and a clinical dietitian at St. Anthony’s Hospital who writes and speaks about the lack of healthy, affordable foods in certain neighborhoods, counted six dollar stores between Fourth and 45th avenues S and 34th Street S to Tampa Bay. They don’t offer fresh fruit and vegetables, she said, but ready access to low-fiber, highly processed, high-sodium food.

“I would like to see more options for food in all parts of St. Petersburg, because I don’t think it is distributed evenly or fairly," she said. “I think something community-owned is the answer.”

The grocery co-op effort grew out of A New Deal for St. Pete, a community-led initiative that was inspired by the People’s Budget Review, a citizens’ advocacy group.

“We took about eight or nine months to adopt bylaws, to adopt a name, to develop a logo," said Judith Turner, a founding member of the co-op and a Childs Park resident.

Turner, executive director of Florida Cooperative Empowered Economic Development Corp., a nonprofit with an office at Pinellas Technical College, is bringing her expertise to the project. “We are all doing this part time and with zero resources. We had to design a membership form. We had no money for a website. It was very grassroots.”

She said that about $10,000 to $20,000 is needed annually to help drive membership. Members can come from any area in the city and pay a one-time fee of $225. Members get discounts and “have a say in what they’re going to sell in their stores,” Turner said.

Perhaps most important, “We would have control and we won’t pack up and leave, because we are owned by the community,” she said.

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