ST. Petersburg, Fla. – Mike Jaber knows about everyone who walks into the store.
That’s one reason St. Pete Free Clinic and city leaders chose Rajax Food Mart and Meat Market, located at 2327 Dr. Martin L. King Jr. Street South, as the first FRESH Pace Healthy Neighborhood store.
He’s already very involved in the community, he’s really on top of what our neighbors need, he’s well-connected, and we know this program is going to be huge in terms of building on the strengths and infrastructure of the area. This is the first opportunity to start this program and go from there,” said Jennifer Yagley, CEO of the St. Pete Free Clinic.
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The program is using nearly $500,000 in funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to provide healthy food options and recipes at six low-income stores in St. Pete that don’t have a nearby grocery store.
Beginning in May 2021, $45 million in ARPA State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds is budgeted to continue the COVID-19 response and create an equitable recovery for residents in St. Pete. More than $1 million has been allocated for food security, including the FRESH Pace Healthy Neighborhood Store program.
“The store owners we talked about couldn’t offer these types of products at affordable prices to the consumers who come here, and this makes healthy food cheaper, more accessible. And here it is. The store people go to first,” Yeagley said.
She said they contacted about 100 stores in eight census tracts in the city that have low incomes and low access to nutritious food.
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“Our plan is to continue this program as long as we can and not just stop at the first six stores that we’ve identified as part of this first phase with the support of the city,” Yeagley said. “We hope to continue to get support from our partners in the city, other entities, other partners, to go into every store in the neighborhoods that need it most and make this program a success.”
Jaber says customers are thrilled with the new addition.
“I love the fresh produce and I don’t want to go to other stores,” said one customer on Tuesday. “It’s convenient.”
Jaber said it was an honor to be the first store selected for the program.
“It was a big step for us because they brought in two new produce coolers and a shelf where we can display more fresh vegetables and fruits,” Jaber said. “Otherwise, we had it as big people and we didn’t have the space to show everything we wanted,” he said.
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“A lot of people, they don’t have the means to go to the big supermarkets. They don’t have the car or the transportation,” Jaber said. “Anything we can do for the community, I’m in.”
According to Yeagley, the number of people served by the St. Pete Free Clinic has increased since the pandemic. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, they served about 6,000 people a month in their food pantry. They now serve about 35,000 a month.
“There’s a widening gap between what people need and what they can afford, and we’re in neighborhoods that don’t have grocery infrastructure. Using the infrastructure of the neighborhood store in this way helps us close that nutritional inequality gap,” she said.
Yeagley said they plan to open their next store in a few weeks at the Lakeview Food Mart in South St. Pete.