By Nicole Slaughter Graham, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG — Well before the coronavirus pandemic, Pinellas County grappled with an all-too-familiar issue: food insecurity. In St. Petersburg, it’s no secret that food insecurity disproportionately affects Black and Brown communities. Midtown is still considered a food desert and has been for the past four years, ever since Wal-Mart closed its Tangerine Plaza location.
According to data from Feeding Tampa Bay, just under 125,000 people suffered from food insecurity in Pinellas County. The organization’s chief programs officer recently told Creative Loafing that since the onslaught of the pandemic, that number has easily doubled.
Still, the community is working to care for its own. The St. Pete Youth Farm grows and sells fresh produce, and new endeavors such as the Southside Fresh Market are working to provide fresh food to the community.
Like many other community members, Samantha Richardson Hardy, the founder of The Gathering of Women, Inc., wanted to actively help her community through the pandemic. She decided to start a food pantry, which opened officially back in April of 2020.
At the time, hers was one of the only accessible options on St. Petersburg’s south side.
“The food pantry site was critical to the project,” she said, noting that after looking at COVID-19 data and seeing the many faces of people within the lines at other food pantries — most of whom were Black and Brown — she and her team knew the pantry needed to be located in an area easily accessible to her community.
When it first opened, The Gathering of Women Food Pantry struggled to find community partners and distributors to help provide food.
“On a couple of occasions, we were sent boxes of spoiled food,” Richardson Hardy said. “We were very disappointed because we were counting on the food for the people in our community.”
The organization had to search out and secure a new distributor in the middle of the pandemic as food insecurity grew. Likewise, partners were slow to materialize.
Luckily, the food bank received a resiliency grant and a CARES Act grant, which provided the funds needed to secure consistent food deliveries for distribution. Much of the CARES Act contract funds went to help deliver food to community seniors and people with disabilities as well. These groups, she said, were some of the most vulnerable to food insecurity because of the pandemic.
Eventually, Richardson Hardy also garnered the support of partners such as the St. Pete Free Clinic and Suncoast Haven of Rest.
Even though vaccines are more widely available, the pandemic still rages on, and food pantries like the GOW Food Pantry are a much relied upon resource in the community.
Richardson Hardy said the pantry sees around 650 people come through the organization each week, and even though the CARES Act funds ran out last December, the need has not diminished.
With more people out of work or under-employed than ever before, Richardson Hardy said the pantry is necessary, even for those on the government SNAP program.
“Some of the people in our community don’t receive food stamps, and for those that do, it’s not enough, so we see them at our food bank supplementing the food they have.”
Since the expiration of the CARES Act contract, Richardson Hardy said that the food pantry is largely dependent on donations and pantry partners. She hopes to be able to continue feeding her community through delivery and the pantry itself.
She encourages anyone willing to donate or volunteer to contact Gatheringofwomen2@gmail.com or gowfoodpantry.org.
The food pantry is located at 2580 12th Ave. S, and is open on Thursdays and Fridays from 11-1 p.m. Food delivery to those with disabilities and seniors is available Monday through Thursday.
To reach Nicole Slaughter Graham, email email@example.com