ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Mike Jaber knows just about everyone who walks into his store.
It’s part of the reason St. Pete Free Clinic and city leaders chose Rajax Food Mart and Meat Market, which is located at 2327 Dr. Martin L. King Jr. Street South, as the first FRESH Pace Healthy Neighborhood Store.
"He’s already so embedded in the community, is really on the pulse of what our neighbors need, has great relationships, and because this program is all about leveraging the existing strengths of a neighborhood and building on infrastructure, we knew this would be a great first opportunity to launch this program and go from there," Jennifer Yeagley, the St. Pete Free Clinic’s CEO, said.
The program is using about $500,000 from American Rescue Plan Act money to add healthy food options and recipes to six stores in low-income areas of St. Pete that don’t have a grocery store nearby.
As of May 2021, $45 million in ARPA State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds was budgeted to continue the COVID-19 response and help create an equitable recovery for residents in St. Pete. More than $1 million was allocated for food security, which includes the FRESH Pace Healthy Neighborhood Store Program.
"Store owners that we've identified have not necessarily been able to offer these types of products at an affordable cost to the consumers who come here, and so this drives down the cost of healthy food, makes it more accessible. And it's right here at the store that people already go to," Yeagley said.
She said they spoke to nearly 100 stores in eight census tracks identified by the city as low-income and low-access to nutritious foods.
"Our plan is to keep this program going as long as we are able and not just stop at the first six stores that we identify as part of the first chapter of this with city support," Yeagley said. "We're hoping to continue to receive support from our partners at the city, other entities, other partners, so that we can really get into every possible store that exists in neighborhoods of high need and make this program happen."
Jaber said customers are excited about the new addition.
"I love the fresh vegetables and don’t want to go to other stores," one customer shopping on Tuesday said. "It’s convenient."
Jaber said it was an honor to be the first store chosen for the program.
"It was a big step for us, because they brought us two brand new produce coolers and a shelf that we can display more of the fresh vegetables and the fruits," Jaber said. "Otherwise, we had like an older one, and we didn't have the space to display everything that we needed," he said.
"A lot of people, they don't have the means to travel to go to the big supermarkets. They don't have the cars or the transportation," Jaber said. "Anything that we could do for the community, I’m all in."
According to Yeagley, the number of people St. Pete Free Clinic is serving has skyrocketed since the pandemic. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, they served about 6,000 people a month in their food pantry. Now, they serve about 35,000 a month.
"The gap is widening between the nutritious food that people need and what they can afford, and we're more in neighborhoods that don't have the infrastructure of a grocery store. Leveraging the existing structure of a neighborhood store like this helps us close that gap of nutrition equity," she said.
Yeagley said they plan to open the next store in a few weeks at Lakeview Food Mart in South St. Pete.