On a Friday afternoon, Liu Kwayera is headed to the corner store to buy a burger and fries. That's not a treat. That's the kind of food she eats pretty much every day. But before you judge her, she says, take a look at her options.
“You may not want to eat burgers and chicken, and stuff like that, but that’s kind of the only thing you have,” Liu said.
She lives in one of the more than 20 food deserts in Pinellas County. In Midtown St. Pete, she can find junk food anywhere. But fresh fruits and vegetables are hard to come by.
As a result, kids are coming home from school to unhealthy meals.
“They're eating whatever is available in the house and it can be just a bag of potato chips or pork grinds, or something bizarre like that, that I wouldn't let my child eat ever,” Dr. Nagi Kumar, director of the Cancer Chemoprevention Program at the Moffitt Cancer Center.
Some of the consequences are obvious like obesity, but researchers are worried kids in these areas are also at a higher risk of cancer. Dr. Kumar is studying the link.
“If we can resolve this food desert situation then, we think we can really prevent a large number of cancers in adulthood in this population,” Dr. Kumar said.
“It's extremely difficult and frustrating,” Liu said about living in a food desert.
Especially if you don't have a car. We tried finding a store with fresh fruits and vegetables within a mile of Liu’s house but had no luck.
Jimmy Pritchett, the owner of a convenience store on 18th Avenue in St. Petersburg told me he only had vegetables in a can and the closest place where I could find fresh food would be more than a mile away.
“You can walk it,” he said. “You’re going to be sweating by the time you get fresh fruit.”
“If you don't have a car, there's nothing. It's really sad,” Kenneth Delaney, a St. Petersburg neighbor said.
At least four bills meant to address food deserts failed in the legislature in the past couple of years. They all died when it was time to allocate the money. But in turn, we're spending billions treating obesity-related illnesses every year.
We asked Liu when was the last time she had fruits and vegetables.
“It's kind of embarrassing to say, but it was like a month ago,” she said.
And every day that goes by without healthy eating options is another day people like Liu are risking getting sick in the future.