The road to food sovereignty pauses in East Tampa

Sanwa Farmer’s Market in East Tampa brings a sense of community from outside the building to the aisles inside. Decorated with several national flags and boasting clientele equally diverse, the market is a key spot in supplying healthy food at affordable prices. 

For some in the Tampa Bay Area, it is a top destination for purchasing authentic foods from Latin America, Asia, and other parts of the world, foods shoppers cannot find in national chain grocery stores or restaurants. For grocery-chain-starved East Tampa (no Publix, one Winn Dixie), Sanwa on Hillsborough Avenue is an essential resource.

The heart of the store comes from local farmers, says Director of Purchasing Wesley Leung. Attending community events within and outside the area contributes to the success of the market and their efforts to promote food sovereignty, Leung notes. 

“There is a need for more farmer’s markets, especially in the food deserts in the Tampa area,” he says. “When doing any charity work, we also go outside our community as well to bring awareness.”

Sanwa lives by its founding principles and gives back to the community that supports it. Leung says when doing events, 90% of earnings are given back to organizations such as Meals on Wheels and Feeding America. Without local markets such as this one, residents of East Tampa would have difficulties in finding nutritious foods at reasonable costs.
Historically, East Tampa has been served by an inadequate number of grocery stores. Residents depend instead on small neighborhood groceries, bodegas, convenience stores, and too few farmers markets such as Sanwa.

Like many lower-income neighborhoods in urban areas everywhere, East Tampa struggles with food sovereignty. Some families within the neighborhood can only access food through a government-subsidized EBT card, which limits the kinds of food and dollar amount that a person can spend within a store. 

As defined by the National Family Farm Coalition, “Food sovereignty holds that all people, from food producers and harvesters to consumers, have the right to reclaim their power in the food system… .” This is achieved by making healthy food sources available to all communities near the production sites. The NFFC suggests that power dynamics influence how food is disbursed and the quality of food that a specific area may get. In poorer neighborhoods, this principle of food sovereignty is harder to achieve because skewed power dynamics result in inequitable distributions of healthy food. Ultimately, the universal right to a proper diet is a standard not yet achieved in parts of the nation.

Despite the nation’s surplus of food, many urban and rural communities still lack the necessary resources to properly access healthy food. High-income societies such as the United States waste up to 17% of food every year for a variety of reasons, including weather events, labor shortages, and transportation challenges.

Local summit on food

The plight of low-income neighborhoods was the focus of the University of South Florida’s 3rd Annual Food Sovereignty Summit last year, an insightful experience in learning how to start changing communities’ outlooks on healthy eating and attaining food from local markets. 

At the summit, it was noted that people tend to think that what we eat is a personal choice and that if you are obese, it is due to a lack of will power. However, it has been documented that low-income communities have access to more options for fatty, salt-laden fast foods than to more nutritious grocery markets. 

Corporate farms primarily distribute corn, wheat, and soy, making these major crops relatively cheap and abundant. As a result, those ingredients have become key to what is served in the fast-food industry as well as major contributors to obesity in the United States. 

In the name of food sovereignty, residents of local communities are increasingly calling for greater control over which foods are grown, processed, and distributed in their own neighborhoods.

USF Sustainability Planner Winnie Mulamba, a speaker at the summit, notes that there are four things to consider when trying to promote food sovereignty to people within a community:
  • Education: Describing the benefits of healthy eating habits.
  • Availability & Access: Where is the food eaten, grown, and who eats it?
  • Healthy & Nutritious: How to make food enticing and fun.
  • Initiating healthy eating habits: How to incorporate it from youth, so that it can remain a constant variable as we grow.
With the growth of processed and fast food, obesity has become a growing threat to individual as well as community health. For example, obesity can lead to additional health problems such as diabetes. According to the Center for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), 34.2 million people are affected by diabetes. To combat these statistics, the CDC advises, healthier eating options need to be more readily available and affordable for all.

As the concept of food sovereignty remains an issue in the United States, community gardens are starting to arise to help battle the problem. In Tampa Bay, locations such as Grand Gardens in New Port Richey and Sweetwater Organic farm in Tampa encourage and increase education about the food we consume. In East Tampa, the Healthy 22nd Street Initiative has started a series of small community gardens along that roadway, self-sustaining boxes that will provide food for nearby residents.

Becoming part of the solution is personal

Back at Sanwa’s, I stopped to check out the fresh herbs and plants outside. Beside me, a small elderly lady looked perplexed at the many plants sitting in front of her. She moved in a little closer and asked if I speak English or Spanish.

I responded, “English,” and hoped that all my years in Spanish class would come back instantly just in case I needed it to help her.

Luckily for me, she responded in English and said that her friend is a cook for the school in the neighborhood. She wanted to get her friend something nice for her home garden for her birthday. 

The lady who could have been someone’s grandmother had such a warmth in her eyes that I knew I could not let her down. This turned out to be the hardest task of my day. Shorter than me, she pointed to a plant hanging above our heads for me to get down for her. 

“This one or this one?” she asked, pointing at two different kinds of plants. I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply, taking in the scent of each plant now sitting on my palette. I responded, basil. Her eyes lit back up; she began to speak again -- only this time not what I’d thought she say. 

“Ah yes, but I think she will like this one better. It’s prettier, No?” I flashed a smile and answered, perfect choice. After all, the gift to her friend was contributing to the very thought behind food sovereignty. 

To learn more, visit Sanwa Farmer's Market.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Sian Donovan.

Sian Donovan is a senior at the USF Zimmerman School of Advertising & Mass Communications. She shares: “Fun fact: I was born in the U.S. Virgin Islands but moved to Florida when I was about 6, so, sadly, I have no accent. Traveling and learning new customs is something I love to do. So far, I have been to 26 different countries. Something about meeting people and learning how they view life or what they deem as sentimental is very interesting. … In my free time I run my blog called What’s the Tea 20 where I cover celebrity news and trending topics. My daily goal is to put a smile on someone’s face and to learn as much as possible. However, my long-term goal is to become an entertainment journalist.”