This is the Key West that visitors don’t see. Kids going hungry in pandemic, report says.

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FLKeysNews | by Gwen Filosa | October 21, 2020

Behind the palm trees and luxury hotels, Key West has a hunger problem.

A new Key West COVID-19 recovery plan, developed by city staff and an 11-member task force of nonprofit and business leaders, found troubling details about the island’s food crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For starters, 560 children in Key West public schools don’t have enough food on weekends and holidays.

To fill this food gap, by handing out backpacks filled with food, it would cost $226,000 a year, according to the report.

“This was not a problem COVID caused,” said consultant Elisa Levy, who presented the report at Tuesday’s City Commission meeting. “It always existed. COVID brought it to a head. The task force was able to find out just how bad it was.”

Levy’s company received a contract from the city to deliver a strategic plan. But she decided a shorter-term COVID-19 recovery — looking at the next six to 18 months — was needed. She volunteered her time for the project.

“Everybody who worked on it volunteered,” Levy said. It took seven weeks to complete.

The plan, which involved input from about 300 people, also focused on business recovery.

City commissioners, in response, agreed to make the Duval Loop downtown bus free again to visitors. They had installed a $1 fee in May only for visitors.

They also decided to help the daily Sunset Celebration festival by cutting the rent down at Mallory Square for the nonprofit behind the event and offering some free parking for performers.

The task force came up with the slogan for visitors: “Glad you’re here! Play safe, mask up and enjoy paradise!”

But the humanitarian side of the plan uncovered needs of locals during the pandemic.

Also, 52 percent of students in Key West receive free or reduced lunches, the report found.

And Keys nonprofits are struggling to keep up with the demand, Levy said.

Star of the Sea Foundation, which feeds needy families throughout the Keys, pre-pandemic was helping 6,000 people a month — including repeat clients — in Key West, which has a year-round population of under 25,000.

Today, the nonprofit is serving 13,000 people a month, a number that includes repeat clients.

“In our city, not in the county,” Levy said. “That’s a lot of people.”

Food stamp requests doubled in the past month. About 3,000 workers may leave the city, the Key West Chamber of Commerce estimated, Levy said.

“People are holding on by their fingernails,” Levy said.

The Monroe County Commission could help bring in federal funding to feed Keys families. On Wednesday, the commission approved agreements with five nonprofits to receive a total of $315,000 for food relief throughout the Florida Keys from the federal CARES ACT, or Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

The nonprofits are SOS, Metropolitan Community Church in Key West, Florida Keys Outreach Coalition, Burton Memorial United Methodist Church in Tavernier and Healthy Start.

But the CARES Act can’t fund the backpack program, Levy said, because the federal money has to go to existing organizations.

SOS food bank, however, will handle the backpacks for the next few months, Levy said.

Commissioner Sam Kaufman disagreed that the hunger level in schools was news.

“We’ve known the poverty level in our schools,” Kaufman said.

But Levy said the hard numbers weren’t known before the task force asked school principals for them.

“It’s not enough to know there’s a problem,” Levy said. “You have to be able to quantify it.”