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More and more people are finding themselves living paycheck to paycheck in the greater Tampa Bay region. In some places, rent has doubled. The cost of everyday goods — like gas and groceries — keeps creeping up. All the while, wages lag behind and the affordable housing crisis looms. Amid cost-of-living increases, WUSF is focused on documenting how people are making ends meet.

How Hillsborough County is reducing barriers to food security

 Two women stand behind a cart in the produce aisle of a Walmart Supercenter. Signs that read, "Juice," and "Pizza" are visible. In the foreground are yellow onions and tomatoes.
Gabriella Paul
WUSF Public Media
Sisters, Barbara Mann and Wanda Wormack, shop for fresh produce at the Walmart on the intersection of Hillsborough Avenue and 19th St. They've made a habit of using Hillsborough County's new Sunshine Line program that offers free, round-trip rides to the grocery store every week.

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.

Weekly schedule:
Tuesday- Winn Dixie
Thursday- Walmart

Trip times:
Departs 11:15 a.m.
Returns 1 p.m

Call: 813-272-7272

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.

 A driver smiles behind the wheel of a bright blue charter bus that reads, "Sunshine Line," on the side.
Courtesy of Hillsborough County
Hillsborough County's Sunshine Line program maintains about 70 vehicles.

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 theLocal 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.

I tell stories about living paycheck to paycheck for public radio at WUSF News. I’m also a corps member of Report For America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.