TAMPA — The area’s newest Wal-Mart Supercenter, at the intersection of Bearss and Nebraska avenues, will face little if any competition from other stores when it opens this spring.
The neighborhood is labeled a “food desert,” defined by the federal government as an area where most of the residents — predominantly low-income — have to travel more than one mile to get to the nearest market that sells fresh produce and other nutritious food. This particular desert covers an area southwest of Interstate 275 and west of Livingston Avenue, and is home to more than 4,500 people, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The Supercenter is the latest in a handful of Wal-Marts that have opened in the Tampa Bay area as the national chain targets food deserts across the country in cooperation with first lady Michelle Obama’s campaign to end childhood obesity. Recently-opened Wal-Mart stores in St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Tampa also are inside or within one mile of designated food deserts.
“We really feel that as the nation’s largest grocer that we have a responsibility to do what we can to help people with their food purchases and improve their access to affordable fresh food,” said Wal-Mart spokesman Bill Wertz, addressing the chain’s push into food desert areas. “This is part of it.”
Seven percent of Hillsborough County residents live in areas considered to be food deserts, according to a county health rankings report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. In Pinellas County, five percent of residents live in food deserts.
A food desert label isn’t the only reason Wal-Mart decides to develop in a particular area, Wertz said, although it is a major factor. The company has pledged to build 275 to 300 stores in urban and rural food deserts throughout the country by 2016.
Wal-Mart has opened 86 stores to serve food deserts since making the pledge in 2011, Wertz said. Locally, that includes the store on Bearss and Nebraska, a store in Midtown in south St. Petersburg and one on U.S. 19 just south of East Bay Road in Largo.
Another store is planned on Hillsborough Avenue in Seminole Heights, Wertz said. The site is 1.1 miles from a food desert.
“We are certainly increasing the amount of grocery stores that we’re building and trying to locate them to areas that are under-served,” he said.
The University Area Community Development Corporation, which is on 22nd Street, a few blocks from the new Wal-Mart at Bearss and Nebraska, has tried for years to address the nutritional needs of people in the University Area, said Executive Director Dan Jurman. On the corporation’s list of priorities, fixing the health disparities in the neighborhood follows closely behind solving public safety issues and adding more affordable, safe housing, Jurman said.
The center currently is working on a community garden program and expanding its open-air market.
Nearby Florida Hospital recently did a full community health assessment of the area, Jurman said, which concluded the top health issue in the neighborhood is diabetes. The problem stems largely from a lack of readily available, affordable and nutritious food.
“Almost all the disparities that we’re seeing is really connected to food and lifestyle,” he said.
The new Wal-Mart at Bearss and Nebraska is only one step toward addressing the nutritional deficiencies in the neighborhood, which rivals those of developing nations like El Salvador, Jurman said.
It most directly will affect people who live within half a mile — or walking distance — of the new store. But the 300 full- and part-time jobs the new shopping center is expected to generate are good for the area, too, Jurman said.
“The Wal-Mart will certainly have an impact on the food desert issues immediately around it,” he said. “But when you’re talking about people living in poverty, transportation is always a barrier to everything.”