COVID-19 has led to a dramatic increase in food insecurity in the U.S., but it’s been a problem in Pinellas County and St. Petersburg long before the pandemic came to our shores earlier this year. 

There are nearly 124,000 Pinellas County residents who are food insecure, according to data from Feeding Tampa Bay.

The St. Petersburg City Council is now taking a proactive measure to deal with food insecurity, supporting a resolution last month to create a Food Policy Council.

What You Need To Know

  • St. Pete’s Food Policy Council will take steps to address food insecurity

  • That includes addressing the issue of “food deserts”

  • Nearly 124,000 Pinellas County residents are food insecure

“I started studying food policy councils that have been formed in other cities across the country, and did some research and found that it really has been effective to bring people with different backgrounds regarding food together to work on the different issues related to food security and urban agriculture,” says Councilmember Gina Driscoll, who has led the effort on the council.

According to, there are more than 100 such councils nationwide. 

The Food Policy Council will work independently from the St. Pete City Council and will be facilitated by the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg.

Julie Rocco, senior community engagement advocate for research and evaluation for the Foundation, said that it was during a series of focus groups and an online survey in 2019 that members of the community made it clear they wanted the Foundation to focus on food insecurity in Pinellas County. 

“The St. Petersburg Food Policy Council was the number one boldest idea of aspiration and inspiration for our community,” she says.

There are “20 plus” formal stakeholders who are voting members of the Council, Rocco says, including representatives from the St. Petersburg Free Clinic, which runs an extremely busy food pantry.

“We’re excited to see what types of policies may develop that address food insecurity as a whole in St. Petersburg, but also importantly nutrition insecurity, which is an important component of addressing food insecurity,” says Jennifer Yeagley, the CEO of the St. Petersburg Free Clinic.

The 3rd Avenue North entrance to the clinic’s drive-thru food pantry was clogged with cars in a line that continued down 8th Street N on the day before Thanksgiving. Yeagley said that pre-COVID, her organization served about 170 families a day. Now it’s around 350 families per day, and that number rose to nearly 600 a day leading up to Thanksgiving.

“I’m very thankful from God that there are people like this that are giving free supplies of food,” St. Petersburg resident Albert Sanluis said on Wednesday. “One hundred percent helpful because my salary is not sufficient enough for me to have a good living.”

“Just to have some food to eat is another blessing,” added St. Petersburg resident Nathaniel Oliver.

Organizers for the Food Policy Council also want to address food deserts in St. Petersburg. Those are areas that lack access to a grocery store with affordable and nutritious food. One such area is in South St. Pete, where Walmart moved in early 2017 out of its location on 22ndStreet South.

Driscoll also says that getting a grocery co-op in the city would be a “fantastic addition” to addressing food insecurity and food deserts.

“It’s also an economic development opportunity for a lot of folks who maybe can’t start their own small business or open a grocery store, but as a group they have that strength to have that collective effort,” she says.

Rocco says she hopes the Food Policy Council will look at “incremental changes and shifts that will drive opportunities for individuals to purchase healthy food.” She specifically refers to barriers to that ability, including land use policies, a lack of transportation and the limitations of spending SNAP benefits (that’s short for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program - better known as the food stamp program).