BY LAURA MULROONEY, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG — She opened the door and walked through the aisles walking over the cracked and worn, decades old linoleum. Brightly colored, brand name salty and sweet snacks adorned the entryway. Her items were chosen quickly from the shelves of packaged treats, Sour Cream and Onion Lays potato chips, Smartfood White Cheddar popcorn and several bags of candy. Her total: $3.00. Her payment method: EBT.
Destiny Cameron, a Midtown resident, turned 18 this summer and received her own EBT card just one month after her birthday. Cameron is no stranger to the world of food stamps. She and her 22-year-old sister receive benefits monthly for food assistance from the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.
SNAP households are expected to spend about 30 percent of their resources on food according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Cameron receives $194 a month for food assistance. This is her only budget for food. She admits that she’s looking for a job, but is afraid that once she does start working her allotment for food will decrease.
She has learned from past experiences and family members how to stretch her food budget; canned foods and meat are purchased when the allotment is disbursed on the 21st of the month. Then she purchases snacks for the remainder of the month to make her allotment last.
That $3.00 bought her approximately 1200 calories.
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010, sedentary teen girls between the ages of 13 and 18 need 1,600 to 1,800 calories per day, while active girls require 2,200 to 2,400 calories each day.
Calories from snacks have made up more than 75 percent of Cameron’s suggested daily caloric intake on this particular summer day.
The USDA defines SNAP as a program that “puts healthy food on the table for millions of low income Americans every month.” The program works by supplementing the budgets of families and individuals with an amount determined by income and household size and is restricted to use at pre-approved retailers, for predetermined food products.
In 2015, the City of St. Petersburg reported 3,777 households, 11 percent of the population within the Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) that includes Midtown, utilize SNAP, while the citywide percentage is 5.5 percent.
In the 33712 zip code, an area of south St. Petersburg bordered by Central Avenue to the north, 54th Avenue to the south, and US 19 and 16th Street, to the east and west respectively, 23 businesses accept SNAP/EBT benefits.
Out of those 23 retailers, Walmart Neighborhood Market at 1794 22nd St. S and Publix on 3030 54th Ave are the only full service grocery stores. They are three miles away from each other.
The remaining 21 stores are convenience stores that make more money from snacks than groceries.
To make it blatantly clear, Midtown is a food desert. Despite the abundant list of approved EBT retailers, a few of which do offer limited fruits, vegetables and protein sources, the distance and lack of nutritional options available for purchase forces Midtown to maintain its food desert status established by the USDA.
According to the Center for Disease Control, scientific studies have suggested that food deserts may negatively affect health outcomes and that lower income families are at higher risk for health issues like obesity, diabetes and heart problems because of lack of options.
In addition to availability of nutritious food, food deserts are further defined by information collected by the U.S. Census Bureau. Numbers concerning the availability of transportation per household, the distance between food sources and the type of food available at each retailer enables researchers to label unhealthy neighborhoods as such.
This debilitating issue has been on the City of St. Petersburg political agenda since the mid-1990s and has been reported on by all major news publications in the area.
According to research done at the University of South, St. Petersburg, Midtown residents suffer from economic and social isolation, causing significant barriers when accessing high quality, affordable food.
Sweetbay Supermarket opened in 2005, followed by Walmart Neighborhood Market in early 2014. Residents and local business owners have felt the ups and downs of the opening and closing of these two businesses.
Naim “Mike” Mubarak, owner of South City Market, admits that 60-70 percent of his business comes from EBT transactions and that most of the items purchased with SNAP benefits are snacks and soda.
“We go through a lot of soda,” remarked Mubarak. “A lot of soda and a lot of chips, too many chips.”
“Without EBT, you cannot make a business like this,” explained Mubarak. “Four years ago in June, I wasn’t able to renew my EBT license because I was out the country; I lost 30-40 percent of my business’ income that month.”
Mubarak laments about the changes his business has seen over the last 10 years. “Since Walmart opened and Sweetbay before that, my meat business and grocery sales have dropped drastically.”
Mubarak’s store isn’t as limited as other convenience stores in the area. A deli case lines the back of the store filled with meats such as chicken, oxtail, pork chops and ground beef from local wholesalers. He has a freezer packed with frozen vegetables and meal items. Eggs, cheese and milk are also available.
But, Mubarak acknowledges that he cannot sell these items as cheaply as Walmart can. A half- gallon of full fat Save-A-Lot brand milk at his store will cost $3.49, at Walmart, a gallon of full fat Great Value brand currently costs $3.36.
To cut costs Mubarak offers brand name snacks and off brand food items. Great Value beans stay untouched on the shelf instead of Goya, while Oreos are emptied from their boxes instead of the lesser-known chocolate sandwich cookies.
On the average convenience stores offer overly processed, high in sugar, salt, fat and carbohydrates, while falling short on protein and essential vitamins.
Roy Henry, a semi-retired senior citizen, works part-time as a cashier for Annie’s Beauty Supply in Midtown doesn’t see a problem walking a mile down the street for healthy food. But in Cameron’s case walking that mile to a full service grocery store isn’t feasible.
A healthy community, as described by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Healthy People 2010 report, is “one that continuously creates and improves both its physical and social environments, helping people to support one another in aspects of daily life and to develop to their fullest potential. Healthy places are those designed and built to improve the quality of life for all people who live, work, worship, learn, and play within their borders — where every person is free to make choices amid a variety of healthy, available, accessible, and affordable options.
Beth Houghton, the executive director of St. Petersburg Free Clinic acknowledges that a healthy community depends on the quality of food available to residents.
She has seen an increase of perishable items, such as frozen meats and produce donated to the food bank over the last few years, which she considers a positive change for those who utilize the clinic’s food services.
Although the food bank has seen an increase of healthy food donations, not everyone who needs food assistance gets it.
“Maintaining a healthy diet on a limited income with dietary restrictions is particularly hard, it can be difficult, but it can be done,” stated Houghton.
She continues to see the clinic’s medical patients, particularly diabetics, facing the most difficulty putting together a healthy diet, adding an extra challenge to already difficult dietary challenge.
There are 11 food pantries within the south St. Petersburg area, two of which are in Midtown; five are within considerable walking distance of Midtown depending on health and physical condition.
Limited availability to transportation and location of healthy food sources continue to perpetuate Midtown’s status as a food desert.