Tangerine Plaza has sat empty these past five years as nutrition insecurity, and chronic diseases continue to rise.
BY WENDY WESLEY, Contributor
ST. PETERSBURG — Last month marked five years since the Walmart Neighborhood Market at Tangerine Plaza shuttered its doors, leaving a large swath of St. Petersburg without a grocer in an area of “low income and low access” defined by the United States Department of Agriculture.
Ken Welch, St. Petersburg’s newly elected mayor, pledges focus and intention on finding a solution.
“For too long, residents in this neighborhood have lacked access and proximity to healthy food options,” Welch said. “That is why I am working with city staff to learn more about proposals for Tangerine Plaza established under the previous administration to make informed choices about how best to proceed.”
These USDA-designated areas have more than tripled during the same five-year period. This is evidenced by data from the 2020 US census showing seven current adjacent census tracts compared with two non-adjacent tracts in 2015.
Nutrition insecurity takes on a community through worsening chronic diseases like heart failure and diabetes that are best managed when food is abundant, affordable, healthy, and fresh. The effects of chronic diseases are exacerbated on gas station diets.
With this new data, and a community clamoring for interventions, we collectively scratch our heads and ask, “Why did the past administration and elected officials deprioritize Tangerine Plaza?”
Former Mayor Rick Kriseman and current District 6 Councilwoman Gina Driscoll perfected the fine art of virtue signaling by giving residents a Food Policy Council housed at the Foundation for a Healthy St. Pete and a proclamation claiming food as a human right. Each action has good optics attached to it, and neither puts food in the stomachs of those who need it.
When the Walmart at Tangerine Plaza closed in Feb. 2017, local activists anticipated the areas of “low income, low access” would increase. We did not expect those areas to TRIPLE, which shows us the profound ripple effects of one grocery store on a community.
Tangerine Plaza is located within the city’s South Community Redevelopment Area, which was created to promote housing, neighborhoods, and businesses development. It comprises 7.4 square miles and is one of the largest in Florida. The plaza sits within a 42-block area of south St. Petersburg with no full-service grocery store. Recently, Habitat for Humanity proposed affordable, multifamily residents across the street.
Last March, the city reported a developer with a grocery store tenant would occupy the space in early 2022 at the latest. Alan Delisle, the city’s former director of economic development, stated that a lease would be executed last May.
Our city has had five years to solve this problem. This is not five years with a stubborn property owner who will not budge, but five years of no movement on a property THE CITY OWNS.
Pre-pandemic data shows that 12.5 percent of Pinellas households are food insecure, creating a budget shortfall of more than $73 million. Imagine what that data will show today.
Here are a few things our citizens, business leaders, elected officials, and city staff can do to fix this:
- Reject aspirational change and virtue signaling from our elected officials in the forms of food policy councils and “food is a human right” proclamations that confuse doing something with doing the right thing.
- Demand our elected officials make good on their campaign promises to put a grocery store in Tangerine Plaza.
- Instead of focusing so intently on the rushed redevelopment of Tropicana Field, ask city leaders to pay attention to needy residents directly under its nose. Take the foot off the gas of the Tropicana Field redevelopment and dedicate some bandwidth to the residents of this city who are struggling with chronic disease.
- Support local and citizen-run farmer’s markets like the Southside Fresh Market and the Deuces Sidewalk Market.
- Hold our new mayor and city council members accountable in their support of the city’s Health in All Policies program. It should continue and be adequately funded, especially where SNAP promotion and support of corner stores are concerned.
- Put the Healthy St. Pete focus on SNAP access promotion and health education to areas of “low income, low access.”
Wendy Wesley is a St. Petersburg registered and licensed dietitian in private practice.