Midtown St. Pete sheds its "food desert" label with Wal-Mart grand opening

01/29/14 Janelle Irwin
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Tags: Wal-Mart, Midtown St. Pete, St. Petersburg, poverty, food desert

Up until today, Midtown St. Petersburg, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, was what people call a food desert.

But at about 7:30 this morning a Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market opened its doors for shoppers – many of whom lack transportation to travel outside of the area for fresh food and were forced to make many food purchases from over-priced convenience stores.

St. Pete City Council member Wengay Newton whose district covers part of Midtown celebrated the Grand Opening early this morning with excited residents.

"It was like when the Rays went into the World Series and the Bucs went to the Super Bowl. People were very, very excited. It was more than just a grocery store today for that community to (). As you know originally that community was asking for the basic necessities that everyone else in every other neighborhood takes for granted. A post office, a bank, a grocery store and then a restaurant. As you know we opened Sylvia's restaurant in the midst of our community. We have a GTE Credit Union there and we also have the post office up on 15th street and then we had a Sweetbay but that subsequently went. I guess the economy took it's toll, the Sweetbay pulled out and now that Walmart's back it's a () for that community which was, for lack of a better word, a food desert. Nothing else there."

Right. Food desert is definitely the word that you most frequently hear used for this neighborhood. Why is it such a big deal that it's not anymore?

"Well, now the people can travel and they can get fresh fruits and vegetables right in their community. Some can walk, which is their only means of transportation they have. Being born and raised in St. Petersburg, that area of town was always a walking area, 22nd street to () was mostly a walking area. A lot of people live in that area that don't have cars, they use the mass transit or the PSTA if you will and they had to travel outside of the area just to get food; fresh fruits and vegetables."

So there's a post office now, there's a restaurant and now there's a grocery store. What's next for mid-town, what do they still need? What are you going to work towards next?

" () This Walmart, this neighborhood Walmart just opening is providing 130 jobs and currently hiring for overnights stocking. It's not going to be open 24 hours like a regular Walmart model. This one will be open from 7 AM to 11 PM. But it's much needed jobs. When that Sweetbay closed 78 jobs went poof, they were gone. Those people were working there, a lot of them full time, some part time, providing for their families, paying mortgages and everything. It was a major catastrophe for the community."

Some critics of the big-box retailer have argued the store will only further poverty in the area by hiring residents in low-wage and often part-time jobs. Newton contends – and many of the new employees as well – that low-wage jobs are better than no jobs for many of these residents.

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