Feeding children in a food desert: What schools are doing to nourish students

By Madison Hursh

In the Midtown neighborhood of South St. Petersburg, there is an ongoing shortage of grocery stores and nutritional food options. The last grocery store in the neighborhood closed in February 2017. This store was a Neighborhood Walmart. 

The definition of a food desert is an area where people live more than one mile from a supermarket in urban areas, or 10miles away in rural areas. It is an area where people have limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Between the shortage of grocery stores and a lack of transportation, many people have had no option but to live off of a “gas station diet” meaning, the food they are eating is coming from the nearest corner store or gas station. 

Pinellas County schools offer free meals and snacks to the kids countywide. This is a part of the United States Department of Agriculture Free School Lunch program. Meals are available at certain schools for children and teens under 18 years old. Starting in October 2020, meals and snacks became available for all children regardless of the school district that they are in. Up to seven days of meals are available for take out. 

Lynn Geist, the director of food and nutrition in Pinellas County, stated that the healthy foods provided are to promote healthy growth and development in children. 

There are 30 schools in Pinellas County that offer the free meals. Parents or guardians can stop by one of the schools that partake in the program. Pick up is Thursdays from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. The child does not have to be present and an ID is not required. 

According to WTSP -TV 10, Tampa/St. Petersburg, kids living in food deserts may be at a higher risk of cancer. Researchers say that the lack of access to healthy food can be linked to cancers. Lack of access to healthy food also leads to obesity and other various health concerns. It is believed that resolving the food desert situation will prevent a large number of cancers in adulthood in the Tampa Bay Area. 

The YMCA of greater St. Petersburg also provides free meals for students in the childcare system. 

According to Eric Ventura, the previous childcare director at the Lealman campus, since the start of the pandemic, the YMCA offered full-time childcare camps for healthcare workers and a 10 week summer camp for students in Tampa Bay. These camps

included two provided snacks and a free lunch for all children. Any meals and snacks leftover were given to students in need. 

“We usually knew which students would come back for seconds. It’s typically the same students everyday that take the leftovers,” Ventura said. “I think the parents appreciate the free meal options, we don’t have many students bring their lunch from home.” 

The YMCA also has various food trucks and ice cream trucks come to the schools to celebrate good behavior. 

An anonymous student who attended the summer camp with the YMCA said the free meals and snacks made her family very happy because “they know I was eating yummy foods.” She said her favorite meal was “pizza party Fridays.” 

Rob Dudley, YMCA childcare leader, explained that even though the students received free meals, he would still have kids come to him asking for food. 

“I would bring in my own snacks and fruit to hand out to the kids to take home,” Dudley said. 

The food desert forces children to come home from school with a shortage of food options. 

The national school lunch program was established under the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch act, signed into law by President Harry Truman in 1946. About 7 million children participated in the first year, and in 2010, the program reached its highest number of participants at 31.8 million children. 

COVID-19 has led to a dramatic increase in the food insecurity problem in Pinellas County. According to Feeding Tampa Bay, there are nearly 124,000 Pinellas County residents who are food insecure. 

The pandemic has caused a dramatic drop in meals provided by schools across the U.S. A report from the Food Research and Action Center showed that there was a 54% drop in breakfasts and a 70% drop in lunches from October 2019 to April 2020. Schools have had to adapt to coronavirus guidelines when distributing food, in order to maintain safety of the recipients. 

With these numbers dropping, families in the food desert who do not have the means to buy fresh and nutritional food are stuck having to live off of these gas station diets. Junk food can be found everywhere, but fresh fruits and vegetables are hard to find in a food desert. 

Since the closing of the last grocery store in Midtown and South St. Pete, Nikkol Patton, Pinellas County resident, founded the South St. Pete marketplace which is a local farmers market with fresh produce. 

Patton explained that she saw the need for a grocery store increase since the pandemic sparked. Starting in early November, the St. Pete market place opens in the parking lot of the Manhattan casino. 

“So many people from my community are struggling to afford taxis and rideshare services to take them to get groceries,” Patton said in an interview with Patch.com. 

The nearest grocery to the Manhattan Casino is the Walmart on 34th street south. This is approximately three miles away. 

As of November 2020, the St. Petersburg City Council has agreed to take measures to deal with food insecurity by creating a Food Policy Council. The goal for this council is to open a grocery that not only feeds the food desert, but is also an economic development for Midtown/South St. Pete. 

For more information on family meal distribution, you can visit Pinellas County Schools Food and Nutrition website to find the distribution locations and times.