With the coronavirus entrenched and many residents still not able to work, Key West city officials have opened a free food pantry in Bahama Village.

The pantry is located at the Frederick Douglass Gym complex, 111 Olivia St., and will be open six days a week from 1:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Saturday. A food and donation drive at City Hall provided the first filling of the pantry, and Key West Business Guild Director Kevin Theriault volunteered to stock the shelves.

Key West Assistant City Manager Patti McLauchlin led the effort to get the pantry up and running. Going forward, the pantry will depend on food and other items donated by city residents. Continued donations will be accepted at the pantry and in drop boxes located at both the front and back entrance of City Hall.

“We’re doing a lot of roundtable [meetings], 26, I think, for COVID-19 recovery. One of the things we kept hearing was, ‘feed our people,’ ” McLauchlin said about the genesis of the new pantry.

While located in Bahama Village, McLauchlin emphasized that the pantry is open to anyone.

“This is for the community as a whole, anyone who needs help. It’s for all of us,” she said.

Beginning this week, Star of the Sea Foundation (SOS) will be distributing pre-assembled boxes and bags of food every Tuesday at the pantry from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Tom Callahan, SOS executive director, said this week’s first food distribution is hopefully the beginning of a larger SOS meal program connected to the Bahama Village pantry, eventually providing hot meals to seniors and citizens.

“I applaud them,” Callahan said about the effort by city staffers to open the new pantry. “We’ve always wanted to have a presence there [in Bahama Village]. Now, we do.”

While supporting the new city-sponsored food pantry, the operators of the “Little Pantry,” a neighborhood-supported pantry at the corner of Geraldine and Fort streets that opened before the coronavirus hit, are a little miffed they weren’t consulted about the new project. Jim Hale, who helps maintain the Little Pantry, was concerned about the limited hours at the Douglass Gym pantry, pointing out that the Little Pantry is open 24 hours a day.

“I’m not trying to discourage a good deed,” he said about the new pantry. “But they could have at least asked what food items are being used the most [at the Little Pantry].”

City Manager Greg Veliz wrote a letter publicly praising the Little Pantry in the hopes any ruffled feathers would be smoothed.

“I would like to personally thank all of the original contributors to the first pantry. I would also like to emphasize that the new pantry in no way replaces the original pantry. I prefer to think that the city recognized the value of the original structure and has seen an opportunity to expand upon the services still provided by the Little Pantry,” Veliz wrote.

McLaughlin said a city employee goes to the pantry every day to check inventory. And the location of the new pantry was based solely on the fact the city had space available in the gym complex, which is undergoing an extensive renovation.

“We have an empty little space in Bahama Village. I don’t have many empty spaces in the city,” she said, “We wanted to do something quickly.”

The need for more and larger food pantries in Key West continues, even though local businesses have begun to reopen and hire back their staff. Callahan said the number of visits to SOS pantries in Key West is still about double what it was pre-COVID. At one point, it was triple the usual number of visits, he said.

In April, total visits to SOS’s Key West pantries were 11,000. In May, that fell to 7,500 and 8,400 in July. To give a comparison, in pre-COVID January this year, there were just under 6,000 visits.

But those numbers jumped significantly after July, Callahan said. August saw 13,500 visits to Key West pantries, while there were 14,035 visits in September.

“Something happened,” Callahan said about the higher numbers in August and September. “When the $600 [federal unemployment supplement] ran out at the end of July, that’s when they started to come back to us.”

SOS will have another food box distribution at Bernstein Park on Stock Island this Thursday, Oct. 8, from 9 a.m. to noon.

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