ST. PETERSBURG — The long days of summer are around the corner. From extreme heat to rainstorms, this can make running basic errands such as picking up groceries even harder if you are among the thousands of St. Petersburg area residents who live in a food desert.
So what’s a food desert? According to the Florida Department of Agriculture, a food desert describes communities where the nearest full-scale grocery store is located at least a mile away from a household in an urban area such as St. Petersburg. In rural communities, that distance stretches to 10 miles.
Most of the neighborhoods located to the south of Central Avenue are designated as a food desert. Across the state of Florida, it is estimated that as many as 2 million people live in food deserts without reliable access to a major grocery store.
While there are a variety of good corner stores and restaurants throughout the community, distance to a major grocery store can significantly limit access to fruits, vegetables, lean meats and dairy.
Food deserts are especially a burden to low-income communities. Nearly 22 percent of low-income Florida residents also have low food access. In 2015, just more than 26 percent of children receiving support from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) were battling or at risk for diet-related diseases.
“Poor access to good nutrition can result in serious health consequences resulting from diets that may lean heavily on fast food, chips, candy and other processed foods,” said Dr. Labovitz, president of the American Heart Association Tampa Bay Metro Board and chairman of the Department of Cardiovascular Sciences at USF. “From heart disease to diabetes and obesity, without access to healthy food, good health is much more difficult to achieve and maintain.”
That is why the American Heart Association is working to advance a healthy corner stores bill in Tallahassee that would reduce the impact of food deserts both locally and across the state.
The bill aims to help small corner store owners located in food deserts acquire the funding and training needed to be able to market and sell a wide selection of healthy foods.
Some corner store owners simply lack the equipment such as refrigeration units to be able to hold and display perishable food items. By providing necessary infrastructure resources, this program is smartly positioned to not only better public health but also provide a boost to local economies.
If passed, this healthy corner stores initiative will create jobs and open new markets for Florida’s farmers.
As an added benefit, it may even lower healthcare costs. Presently $6.7 billion is spent each year in Florida treating obesity-related diseases. Add to that, just over 74 percent of adults in Florida have inadequate fruit and vegetable consumption.
By making it easier to eat healthy regardless of where you live, the American Heart Association is committed to reducing the significant burden of heart disease and stroke.
It’s important that lawmakers in Tallahassee hear your opinions on this issue. If you or a family member has been impacted by living in a food desert, consider calling you representative by visiting: http://bit.ly/FLGovernmentCall.
Dr. Arthur Labovitz is an Edward C. Wright Professor of Medicine and Chair of the USF Health Department of Cardiovascular Sciences and the American Heart Association Tampa Bay Metro board president.