TALLAHASSEE — Advocates for the hungry and malnourished are welcoming two new pieces of legislation that will make it easier for people living on food stamps or in neighborhoods without grocery stores to get their hands on fresh produce to improve their diets and health.
One, already signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, broadly expands the use of the electronic debit card that food stamp recipients rely on so they can buy fruit and vegetables at farmers markets.
Another, awaiting Gov. Scott’s signature, would create a pilot program to finance the expansion or renovation of existing grocery stores in neighborhoods that have been labeled “food deserts” — low income urban and rural neighborhoods where fresh and affordable food is scarce or are more than a mile from a well-stocked grocery store.
These neighborhoods also have a higher than normal rate of diet-related illnesses like diabetes, hypertension and obesity.
“All over the state, and a matter of fact all over this nation, areas in mostly minority and low income neighborhoods are food deserts,” said Rep. Larry Lee, the Fort Pierce Democrat who co-sponsored the Healthy Food Financing initiative with Rep. David Santiago, R-Deltona.
It wasn’t always that way, Lee said. The Fort Pierce neighborhood he grew up in during the 1960s had a Winn-Dixie and a Buy Rite.
“Now, in the area of Fort Pierce where my mother lives, you have to drive miles to find fresh fruit and vegetables, and a fresh cut of meat,” Lee said.
The closest store is a convenience store full of canned goods and junk food.
Florida has about 400 so-called food deserts, some as small as a few square blocks and some as large as half a county in more sparsely populated areas. Hillsborough has 44 of them, according to state and federal reports, while Pinellas has about a dozen and Pasco two dozen.
Collier County has about half a dozen, Lee County more than two dozen, and the three counties of the Treasure Coast more than two dozen, most of them in St. Lucie. A complete list and map is at freshfromflorida.com, website of the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Lee filed a similar bill last year to create a Healthy Foods Financing Initiative, but it didn’t get a committee hearing. This year, it made it all the way through both houses and was sent to the governor’s desk Wednesday.
Lee and Santiago originally envisioned a broader program with a $2 million appropriation and a plan to finance a project in each region of the state. But Lee said he’s grateful it got funded with $500,000 to finance up to three projects and hopes the scaled-back pilot will demonstrate a need for more robust funding.
The financial aid could only be used to rehabilitate or expand an existing independent grocery store or market or a community store run by an agency that also provides health and social services, according to the bill’s analysis.
“If it succeeds, we hope to get more money,” Lee said.
Details of the program will be developed in the coming months, said Aaron Keller, spokesman for the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
“This will be the first time we have provided financing of this kind,” Keller said, “but it will take some time to get this program set up and running.”
Done right, the program could be a major step toward improving food access, said Jan Baskin, community outreach coordinator at Florida Hospital Carrollwood and director of the hospital’s Food Is Medicine program.
“This could really be an economic development tool for these small communities,” Baskin said.
Small corner stores in these communities are struggling, Baskin said.
“Customers don’t have the money to spend, and the stores don’t have the inventory that we would want them to have,” she said.
One store in College Hill came to mind, owned by a young couple, beautifully decorated inside and out.
“But they are struggling, trying to have healthy foods,” Baskin said.
Baskin also was concerned that smaller stores would lose out to supermarkets that had the muscle to lobby for these grants.
“I hope they will be careful in giving grants and don’t give to the larger supermarkets or gas stations and convenience stores,” Baskin said.
Baskin began health and nutrition classes last April and already has seen welcome results from educating people about making healthy food choices to combat medical problems related to poor diet.
The demand for this type of information is high, Baskin said. The program taught 488 adults in 11 locations during the past year and already has 282 participants at 18 locations with a waiting list for this year.
“We don’t have enough classes or nurses,” she said.
Adults who sign up for the classes get free screenings and get produce or a voucher worth $10 to get produce from a truck that Caitlyn Peacock of the Tampa Bay Network to End Hunger drives into the communities.
The Tampa Bay YMCA runs a similar mobile produce truck, called the Veggie Van. It makes regular deliveries to Tampa Heights, Wimauma Village and Sulphur Springs in Hillsborough County and Lacoochee in Pasco County.
Since it rolled out in July, the van has served 1,768 children and 692 families, said Elizabeth Roman, the mobile food market director.
In January, the van got approval to use EBT cards, Roman said.
“Currently, we are in the process of handling the logistics and setting up a system in the van,” said Lalita Llerena, communications director for the YMCA. “We are hopeful to be all set up by the summer.”
Baskin said she was encouraged that the Legislature expanded to local, privately owned farmers markets the use of food stamp cards issued to beneficiaries of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
“It broadens the scope of SNAP usage in fresh markets and free markets, and creates additional access points,” Baskin said.
The law allows owners of fresh markets to contract with a third party to install card-swiping equipment that allows vendors to accept SNAP debit cards as payment for their produce. But they aren’t required to do it, and there is no state money set aside to offset those costs.
“Not only is there no funding to do it, there is no mandate,” Baskin said. “They have now been told they can do SNAP and are encouraged but don’t have to.”
State Rep. Ed Narain, D-Tampa, said both pieces of legislation are good for urban communities in particular.
“The food desert problem is real. Outside of a few corner stores where they mostly sell processed foods, many areas I represent don’t have stores that sell fresh produce,” Narain said.
The ability to buy fresh produce at farmer markets with EBT cards will help a lot of people, Narain said. At a recent Farm Share event, where fresh produce is distributed to poor neighborhoods, people were eager to get their hands on fresh produce, he said.
“You’d be surprised by the number of people who don’t have basic access to tomatoes, cucumbers and other fresh foods the farm shares provide.”