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In-depth: Food industry experts expect prices to continue rising making the food desert situation worse

17% of Floridians are food insecure
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Posted at 4:50 PM, Nov 22, 2021

TAMPA, Fla. — If you started your food shopping for the holidays, you know first-hand how expensive everything is getting. Food industry experts are warning shoppers of rising food costs in local supermarkets ahead of the holiday season.

A 2016 Coleman-Jensen survey found that 17% of Floridians are food insecure. That’s more than 3-million people. Many of them are children, the elderly and people who live far from supermarkets.

What’s worse, the average food prices in food deserts were 36% higher than in non-food deserts. That’s because these communities usually have to shop at convenience stores to go grocery shopping and many times, these stores do not sell fresh fruits and vegetables, leading to chronic health issues and poverty.

“It’s really hard for elder people,” said Shirley Brown, who is on disability and who struggles to afford groceries. “Especially, to get around and be able to go to the store and get the vegetables and stuff that they need and not only that, a lot of them are on social security and disability and it’s really hard.”

When Brown makes it to a supermarket, she gets sticker shock because of rising prices.

Rafae Valle said she's had to cut back on buying certain food products she used to buy.

“Now, we have to get more beans, eggs, potatoes. Meat is very expensive,” said Valle.

“Well, I think over the next few months, we’re going to continue to see what we’re seeing now, which is elevated prices for food products that are available in our local grocery stores,” said Leslie Sarasin, president of The Food Industry Association.

Sarasin said there are two main reasons why food prices are rising. First, food products are not getting on to store shelves as they used to because of supply chain issues. Second, ever since the pandemic began, there has been an increase in demand for those very same products,

“But I’m hopeful that that will be sort of a short-term challenge for us to have to deal with," Sarasin said.

Alana Rhone from the USDA explained the factors that go into determining which communities are considered food deserts.

“They are low-income census tracts where a significant number, or share or the population live more than one mile if it is in an urban area or 10 miles if it is a rural area away from the nearest food store," Rhone said.

Dr. Lauri Wright is a professor of Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of North and she said she is concerned about the number of food deserts in the Tampa Bay area.

“More and more people lack access to adequate amounts of affordable and nutritious food,” said Dr. Wright.

She said living in a food desert also has negative health ramifications such as higher rates of diabetes, high blood pressure and even obesity.

“And we actually call it the Hunger Obesity Paradox because people do not think that someone that is hungry can be overweight, but that is exactly why, because what are the cheaper foods.” Dr. Wright said, inexpensive foods tend to be high in calories and have a lower nutritional value.

“I think the good news, from our perspective, is that we had the opportunity to prepare,” said Matt Spence, with Feeding Tampa Bay, the area’s largest food pantry organization.

Matt said they had to be very creative in coming up with ways to ensure that they can deliver the same level of service to the thousands of people who depend on them every week.

“And, so, we’ve been reaching out for months now saying we understand that this is coming. You know, anyway that you can increase what you send our way," said Spence.

Many professionals agree that eliminating food deserts entirely is complicated, but the YMCA of Tampa Bay is doing what it can to bring healthy food where it is needed the most.

“We serve 6 different communities. We go to Lacoochee, Sulphur Springs, Tampa Heights, Dover, Plant City and Wimauma,” said Elizabeth Roman, who travels around with dozens of boxes of food in their Veggie Van and they only give out fresh, healthy produce. “So, today, they had sweet potatoes, zucchini, oranges, avocados, cabbage and tomatoes.”

They started hitting the road in 2015 and Elizabeth said she’s just happy to be able to give good quality food that will, ultimately, nourish people’s bodies.

“It goes back to one of our pillars of strengthening communities and just making communities healthier," Roman said.

If you're trying to save money the next time you're in a supermarket, here is what food experts suggest:

  • Join the market's loyalty club because they often offer their members exclusive discounts.
  • Consider buying store-brand food items because they tend to be cheaper.

If you or someone you know lives in a food desert or is food insecure, here are links to resources that can help put food on the table:

WHAT IS THE PRICE OF PARADISE?
As Tampa Bay continues to attract new residents and businesses, the impact of living in paradise comes at a cost for all of us— from the increasing cost of housing and infrastructure to utilities and insurance. ABC Action News is committed to helping you and your family make the most of your money and navigate through the Price of Paradise.