How Hillsborough County is reducing barriers to food security
A pilot project designed to improve access to fresh and healthy food for East Tampa residents has now become a regular program.
Residents can now routinely reserve free, round-trip transportation to the grocery store in Hillsborough County.
On Tuesday, the county ended the trial period and relaunched the program as a regular service for residents, according to officials.
Tuesday- Winn Dixie
Departs 11:15 a.m.
Returns 1 p.m
Wanda Wormack, who was born and raised in Belmont Heights, said she intends to be a regular customer. Most weeks, since the program started, Wormack has used the service to shop with her sister, Barbara.
“We like coming. And the bus driver’s so nice, friendly and kind ... And the bus is clean and neat and air-conditioned and everything. We love it."
Before the service started, Wormack depended on public transportation or a ride from a family member to get to the store.
Now, she can bank on a regular group ride.
Twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the county-operated bus will transport up to 12 residents from the Lee Davis Community Resource Center to a nearby supermarket, and back.
The shuttle service is operated through the Hillsborough County Sunshine Line, a needs-based bus service that typically provides door-to-door transportation. This is the first time the charter service has been used for free group trips without eligibility criteria, according to Sunshine Line director Jerry Stickney.
In the first four weeks during the soft launch of the program — about 36 completed rides — ridership averaged 50%, he said.
“And that’s with little outreach ... just word of mouth,” Stickney said.
Audrey Ziegler, the county’s social services director, credits the new program’s positive reception to their partnership with the Lee Davis Community Resource Center, which is a longstanding trusted resource within the East Tampa community.
“We know there’s a need when people are lined up outside and they’re very grateful,” Ziegler said. “They’re thanking us for filling the gap that they’ve mentioned to us prior.”
Ziegler said the grant-funded program was designed to improve access to food in East Tampa neighborhoods, where residents typically have fewer personal transportation options and where commercial supermarkets aren’t within walking distance.
The standard walking distance to a food pantry for East Tampa residents is estimated at between a half mile to three-quarters of a mile, according to the county’s latest community needs assessment. Residents and stakeholders also identified a need for “sidewalk construction and improvement,” according to the report.
Federal grant funding for the program, $50K awarded through the Local Assistance and Tribal Consistency Fund, will last through September 2024 with the opportunity to renew, according to a county spokesperson.
In the produce aisle, Wormack works through her grocery list as thunder booms outside — in typical fashion for a summer day in Florida.
On a day like this, before the county rolled out its new bus program, Wormack said she would have gone without grocery shopping.
Gabriella Paul covers the stories of people living paycheck to paycheck in the greater Tampa Bay region for WUSF. She's also a Report for America corps member. Here’s how you can share your story with her.