For a St. Petersburg food pantry, fresher meals mean healthier humans

ST. PETERSBURG — It was taco Tuesday and they needed a cook.

So, Denise Urksa decided to give it a shot.

She searched on Google for recipes, watched strangers prepare the ingredients on YouTube.

As the days passed, she continued to fill in. Now, she cooks full-time for the St. Petersburg Free Clinic’s Women’s Residence, which serves women recovering from substance abuse.

“I’ve been there,” said Urksa, who battled a 40-year addiction. “I know what it’s like to have a pack of Ramen noodles and not have hot water to heat it up.”

Now she dines out, orders foods like asparagus to see how it’s supposed to taste, then comes home — she calls the Women’s Residence home — and tries to make it herself.

The residence is one of about 60 sites in Pinellas County that receive donations from the Free Clinic’s “We Help” food pantry. Families can also come there four days a week to pick up groceries.

Amid the pandemic, a number of small community partners have shut down, likely contributing to the increase in local residents coming directly to the pantry. To better meet the need, the clinic has expanded its refrigeration capacity so it can store larger quantities of eggs, milk, fruits, vegetables and other fresh items.

Denise Urksa
Denise Urksa [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Being able to cook soup with ingredients like broccoli and cauliflower “makes a big difference in these girls’ lifestyle,” Urksa said, adding that some women at the residence have told her they’ve never had a home-cooked meal.

“We began as a health clinic and grew from there,” said Jennifer Yeagley, the clinic’s CEO. The goal of the food bank is to contribute to health and “ultimately to health equity,” she said.

The food distribution is aimed at satisfying the immediate needs of families, said Yeagley, but “the quality of the food has ripple effects.”

Jennifer Jeagley
Jennifer Jeagley [ St. Petersburg Free Clinic ]

In the United States, Black adults are most likely to have hypertension and, along with Hispanic adults, obesity and diabetes as well, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Those disparities are partly rooted in history.

In the 1960s, a significant wave of disinvestment in communities of color and urban communities left many without nutritious food options. Grocery stores fled, following wealthier families out of those communities, said Brian Lang, director of the National Campaign for Healthy Food Access at The Food Trust, an organization started by running farmers’ markets in communities without grocery stores.

Today, many of the same communities are faced with barriers to food access. Residents must travel long distances for healthy options or get by with what’s available close to home.

“Healthy food sustains life,” said Lang. “If you don’t have good access to healthy food, you’re likely to not eat as many fruits and vegetables.” That impacts health conditions like obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, he said.

On any given day, those who staff the Free Clinic do not know what food they might receive from donations, so they supplement with purchases made possible through grants. Squash, asparagus, apples, strawberries, poultry and eggs are among the fresh produce provided by the clinic.

St. Petersburg Free Clinic volunteer Barbara Daudigan, center, helps a client at the walk-up station Dec. 9 during one of the clinic's Monday-through-Thursday drive throughs offering fresh food items.
St. Petersburg Free Clinic volunteer Barbara Daudigan, center, helps a client at the walk-up station Dec. 9 during one of the clinic’s Monday-through-Thursday drive throughs offering fresh food items. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

“We prioritize fresh and healthy food,” said Yeagley. Internally, the clinic puts out a “fresh report card” documenting the amount of fresh protein, dairy and produce their operation distributes.

Food banks address one aspect of promoting a healthy diet, said Lang of the Food Trust. However, he added, “you really do need a comprehensive approach to addressing the problem.”

Last month, the St. Petersburg City Council created a Food Policy Council to address local food insecurity and healthy food access, which will be facilitated by the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg.

To chip away at health disparities, Lang said, families need adequate time to prepare food and education on the basics of nutrition, on top of other measures.

“It is a pervasive problem that requires a public sector response,” he said. “It can be solved with resources.”

The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg provides partial funding for Times stories on equity. It does not select story topics and is not involved in the reporting or editing.

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