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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Gainesville community tackles Eastside food insecurity

How nonprofit and for-profit community-led efforts are addressing food accessibility

GFGS volunteers organize fresh produce and food donations in preparation for their weekly distribution at the Civic Media Center Tuesday, May 16, 2023.
GFGS volunteers organize fresh produce and food donations in preparation for their weekly distribution at the Civic Media Center Tuesday, May 16, 2023.

When East Gainesville native Hatdrika Monroe researched U.S. food deserts for a UF class in 2018, she didn’t expect to discover she was from an area nationally recognized for its disparities, including food insecurity. 

“It startled me,” she said. “I'm still traumatized by that.”

Food insecurity is the “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways,” according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

A Walmart on Northeast 12th Avenue serves as East Gainesville’s only USDA-approved grocery store, while the city’s student-dominated West side is crowded with popular grocery destinations like Publix and Trader Joe's. The restricted access to a large grocery or supermarket for residents solidifies many boroughs of East Gainesville as food deserts, according to a 2021 city report.

The resources in East Gainesville, like gas stations and convenience stores, don’t offer fresh produce and healthy foods. 

A 2023 report by Gainesville Free Grocery Store, a mutual aid food pantry and garden, described East Gainesville neighborhoods abounding with poor-quality food as “food swamps."

To combat this, a variety of local activists and organizations have launched efforts to feed food-insecure East Gainesville residents. People from the East side and outside it alike are trying to solve food insecurity issues through community-based initiatives after a lack of government and corporate progress.

Monroe, 29, understood her community's lack of resources compared to others, but residents always supported one another and proposed creative solutions to issues, she said. Her grandmother, a matriarch and gardener, used to run a grocery store and daycare out of her home.

"In East Gainesville, we've always surrounded each other and offered what we have to give," she said. "I was cultivated by my community."

Inspired by her upbringing, Monroe launched Swarthy East GNV in 2020, a grassroots, for-profit organization dedicated to increasing access to nutritious foods and supporting small businesses through community-based initiatives in the East side.

Swarthy East GNV will sell community-supported agriculture boxes stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables able to feed up to a family of four between June 3 and July 8. Produce will be sourced from the organization’s farm located in Hawthorne and other partner farms in Central Florida, like Nicoya Farm in Gainesville. 

“Our objective is to collaborate with what already exists, bring those resources to the people and ask the community to support these resources,” she said.

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Monroe aspires to build a brick-and-mortar location for Swarthy East GNV with a grocery store, a garden and other important resources. Her main obstacle is securing funding, which she hopes to overcome through grants. 

She expressed frustration with the local government's perceived lack of effort to follow through with proposals like bringing a new grocery store to the east side. Most city officials rarely answer her emails, she said. 

“We've seen people go to the meetings and yell and scream and advocate for change in East Gainesville,” she said. “ At the same time, we're not waiting for anyone to save us. We're going to do what we need to do for our community.”

Outside of for-profit efforts, non-profit organizations have supplied food-insecure East Gainesville residents with groceries and meals for years. 

Abigail Perret-Gentil, who’s lived in Gainesville for more than 20 years, founded Grace Grows, a non-profit organization and community garden that grows fresh produce, in 2015. The food is distributed to GRACE Marketplace, an Eastside homeless shelter that also provides other housing-related resources. 

The 38-year-old launched the organization after she witnessed the depth of East Gainesville's food insecurity issue as a volunteer at GRACE Marketplace. 

“There is a collective frustration that's existed for a very long time,” she said. “Grace Grows didn’t discover the problem.”

Grace Grows received a $35,000 USDA grant toward the end of 2020 to fund research for the Grace Grows Community Food Planning Project, which will be released in the coming weeks. 

Compiled with the perspectives of various community members, the project will outline a plan for how to terminate food insecurity in Southeast Gainesville. 

“Our goal was to create data and advocacy that would bring more power into the impacted community,” she said.

Perret-Gentil hopes the report compels the city and county governments, whose previous efforts to solve East Gainesville’s food insecurity crisis failed, to collaborate with community members on a solution. 

Outside of East Gainesville locals, UF students have also established efforts to fight food accessibility issues across the city. 

Renz Torres, a 25-year-old UF graduate student, is a coordinator for Gainesville Free Grocery Store, which was established in 2019 and operates out of the Civic Media Center. The organization distributes free food to Gainesville residents on Tuesdays with products sourced from its garden and outside contributors like Giving Garden Gainesville.

Roughly 25 to 33% of the organization’s customers are East Gainesville residents, they said.

Torres became involved with the organization after they saw how the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated East Gainesville's preexisting food accessibility issues. Residents lost employment and struggled to travel to far grocery stores due to isolation requirements, they said.

Given East Gainesville’s population demographics, Black Eastside residents are disproportionately at risk of being food insecure, Torres said.

"If you have a food system based on profit, people who have been historically marginalized are going to continue not being able to access these resources," they said. 

The city has struggled to find a grocery store owner or developer willing to take the financial risk of building a location in a low-income area like East Gainesville, said Gainesville City Commissioner Reina Saco. 

“The city is not a food distributor,” she said. “We're not set up to do that.”

While the 2021 $3.3 million American Rescue Plan loan originally designated for opening a Bravo Supermarket was reallocated to other development initiatives like housing, there is still over $1 million in Gainesville Community Reinvestment Area funding set aside for a future grocery store once a company steps up, Saco said. 

In the meantime, the city is moving forward with the Eastside Health and Economic Development Initiative, a project seeking to build a hub dedicated to providing transit, health and food resources on Hawthorne Road, Saco said. 

The plan allocates roughly 18,000 square feet to the development of a grocery store or food resource, said Philip Mann, special adviser to the city manager on infrastructure and capital projects via email. 

The project will take the next 12 to 18 months to be completed, Saco said.

Contact Amanda at Follow her on Twitter @amandasfriedman.

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Amanda Friedman

Amanda Friedman is a senior journalism major and the Enterprise Editor at The Alligator. She previously wrote for the Avenue, Metro and University desks. When she isn't reporting, she loves watching coming-of-age films and listening to Ariana Grande. 

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