FORT MEADE – Willie Mae Lewis can see the former Valu King store from her front door.
“I could just walk over there and get what I needed,” the 80-year-old Fort Meade native said. “I don’t drive, so having that store so close made it easy for me. It was a bad day when that store closed down.”
When Valu King locked its doors in October 2012, it left Fort Meade’s estimated 6,000 residents without a full-service grocery store, and people like Lewis out in the cold.
“I have to wait for my daughter to take me to the store in Bartow or Wauchula,” Lewis said. “I felt the loss when the store here closed. I truly did.”
Family Dollar and Dollar General in Fort Meade offer some household staples, but not the fresh meat and produce needed for a healthy diet.
Brenda Reddout, regional director of Catholic Charities of Central Florida and director of that group’s programs for alleviating hunger, said access to affordable groceries is a pervasive problem in Polk County.
“When you look at Polk, if you live within most cities, you have access to nutritious food,” she said. “However, there are poor areas in some cities where there is access only to convenience stores. They aren’t going to be selling the nutritious foods people need.
“And there are rural areas in Polk where there isn’t a grocery store for miles, like Fort Meade and Frostproof,” she said. “There’s definitely a problem here.”
An estimated 100,800 Polk County residents in 2013 lived in areas where they didn’t have easy access to a grocery store, according to research by the non-profit Feeding America organization. That’s about 16.5 percent of the county’s residents, which is less than the state average of 17 percent.
In some rural counties, like Gadsden and Madison, and even some urban counties, like Tallahassee’s Leon County, as many as 22 percent of the residents either can’t get to a full-service grocery easily or can’t afford the food when they get there, according to Feeding America research.
In Polk County, several groups are pulling together to work out solutions to the problem, said Mary Beth Henry, small farms extension agent with the Bartow-based Polk County Extension Service.
“It’s easy to give people food,” she said, “but we’re trying to provide them better access to that food.”
She said mobile markets are being considered, which would travel around the county on a designated schedule to bring fresh food to specific urban and outlying areas.
“Access to healthy food affects people’s health, and that’s our interest,” Henry said. “Obesity is a problem in this county, and we have a lot of convenience stores. If that’s all they have access to, there are things we can do to improve their choices.”
Jim DeGennaro, the county’s recently retired community development director, said Polk County’s demographics make it difficult to attract grocery chains to some areas.
“Most grocery chains want a population base of 20,000 people, at a minimum, before they’re going to move into an area,” he said. “You’re not going to get that in Fort Meade or Frostproof.”
Meanwhile, Lewis and others like her who once walked to the store now must leave town to get their fresh groceries.
And there are many like her who need transportation. Employees at Fort Meade’s Dollar General said a good many of their customers walk to their store. One woman in her 80s, an employee said, walks nine blocks each way every other week to pick up the few items she can carry home.
Henry said she hopes the coordinated efforts of several groups will find solutions to help people like Lewis.
“In terms of access, there isn’t someone else who’s going to fix this for us,” she said. “We are in charge of helping the people who are here, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”