ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Wendy Wesley, a registered dietitian/food activist now running for city council, says she looks at every public policy issue through the lens of health equity.

Take for instance, the need for more affordable housing in St. Petersburg.

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“One of the major social determinants of health is housing,” said Wesley. “I’ve worked alongside people at the hospital for years. People who don’t have stable housing. They rely on public transportation to get to and from their essential jobs at the hospital. They’re making $12-$13 an hour. And I’m concerned for their ability to continue to live in this city and to provide their essential function of health care. And that’s not just people who work in health care. That’s teachers. It’s firefighters. It’s also police officers. We have to have places for our essential workers to live.”

The 49-year-old Wesley is a St. Pete native who worked for several years at St. Anthony’s Hospital as a nutritionist and more recently with the St. Pete Free Clinic.

She says her inspiration to become a food policy activist came after attending the Women’s March in January 2017, the biggest protest event in St. Pete’s history.

“There was someone who spoke that day at the podium, and she said ‘pick something in your community, and plug into it, and see if you can make a difference,'" Wesley said. "And I was working as a dietician/nutritionist at the hospital and I said - you know, I want to do more for health equity and food justice - I wanted to try and see how people’s needs were not being meant in this city.”

That event nearly four years ago catapulted Wesley into taking her work more public, leading to requests from people in the community to write and speak more about food issues.

ABOVE: YouTube video link of Wesley showing how to make hummus

“So many of my patients in the city with cardiac disease, diabetes, kidney failure, simply did not have access to the food in this city,” she said.

Now she’s running for the first time for public office in the District 4 seat which has been held for the past seven years by Darden Rice, who will be term-limited out of the seat next year (The district represents a slice of central and northern St. Pete and includes Crescent Lake, Euclid Heights and the Old Northeast).

Wesley says that as someone steeped in social work, she applauds the decision by Mayor Rick Kriseman and St. Pete Police Department Chief Anthony Holloway to create the Community Assistance Liaison (CAL) program that will employ licensed mental health workers to respond to nonviolent 911 calls. The program was announced as demonstrations took place in the city for police accountability and racial justice in the wake of the death of George Floyd.

“I’m incredibly proud of my city for doing this,” she said, adding that she felt “intense pride” in the nightly protests over the summer.

On another topic, the city has been soliciting requests for proposals to redevelop the 86-acre site of Tropicana Fields for the past five months. 

Wesley says she hopes that whatever plan makes it considers the communities of color that were displaced when the baseball stadium was built in the 1980s and becomes an area for everyone to enjoy.

“I hope that there’s some green space,” she says. “I hope that there’s some buildings for schools and education. I hope that there are areas of small business to plug in. Because small businesses are what make this city great and unique and colorful. I just hope it doesn’t become another area that is not attainable for everyone.”

Wesley says she expects the field to grow in the District 4 race over the course of the next few months. The only other announced candidate in the race is Clifford Hobbs III, who Spectrum Bay News 9 will speak with next week.

The St. Petersburg election takes place next August.