Helping People

These Key West women are serving up hot meals and hope after Irma

A taste of normalcy to those recovering from Irma in the Florida Keys

Key West women make and deliver home-cooked meals after Irma.
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Key West women make and deliver home-cooked meals after Irma.

A small group of Key West women are gathered in the kitchen of Margit Bisztray’s home in Sugarloaf Key near Mile Marker 19.

One chops parsley, adding it to crunchy, homemade coleslaw, which will top the day’s sandwich: roast beef with cheddar-horseradish cheese and Dijon mustard on spongy-soft whole grain bread from Key West bakery Cole’s Peace. Another chiffonades mint for the red quinoa salad made with chickpeas, snow peas, scallions and sesame oil.

Layla Barr presides over the kitchen and calls the shots. She’s adding coarsely chopped carrots, fennel and broken lasagna noodles to a bubbling cauldron of her made-from-scratch chicken soup. When one woman finishes a task, Barr points to what’s next. After the parsley and mint, there’s purple onion, beets and tarragon to chop, lemon to zest, romanesco to roast. Two loaves of banana bread bake in the oven, lending the kitchen a sweetly caramelized scent.

It’s a Tuesday morning in late October, seven weeks after the eye of Hurricane Irma barreled through the Lower Keys, sparing Bisztray’s sturdy two-story home with its wide, wraparound wooden porch held aloft on concrete stilts. Still, all morning, a yellow bulldozer slowly makes its way up and down the road, dutifully removing downed tree limbs and debris left over from the storm. Just a few miles up the Overseas Highway, the situation is dire. Some communities in Cudjoe, Ramrod, Summerland, Little Torch and Big Pine Keys were left devastated.

These women, led by Bisztray and Barr, are preparing fresh, nourishing meals to hand out to Lower Keys residents who are still in the midst of survival and recovery, as well as to the family members, volunteers and utility workers who have arrived to help them. This has been the routine inside Bisztray’s home five days a week, ever since sending out a rallying cry via Facebook on Sept. 26: “I want to organize a sandwich and maybe meal brigade for the Lower Keys. People are hesitant to accept food donations but will accept meals. This may be pride, or just that when your house has no roof, a can of corn is not much good… I’m starting today. Come help me!”

Volunteers Shelly McInnis, left, Ashley Kamen, Dorthe Thure and Margit Bisztray, right, prepare sandwiches and wraps. A group of women gathered at Bisztray’s home to prepare meals to be distributed to workers, volunteers and residents rebuilding Big Pine Key. CARL JUSTE

Help came swiftly. One day later, a friend of Bisztray’s from high school created a gofundme campaign called Nourishing the Lower Keys, which has raised more than $14,000 and keeps the operation chugging along. They work with a core of 10 volunteers, mostly women, some of whom own local restaurants and businesses and donate supplies.

Bisztray and Barr estimate they’ve delivered 5,000 meals, averaging about 100 to 150 lunches per day. They’ve received support from Pepe’s Café, Blue Heaven, Date & Thyme, Old Town Bakery, Thirsty Mermaid, Mayanjali Café, Croissants de France and Fausto’s. Extra supplies are dropped off at Keys Vineyard Community Church in Big Pine, which coordinates relief efforts with hundreds of volunteers.

“Most of us are mothers, so the impulse to feed someone is natural. It’s a primal instinct,” says Bisztray, 50, a mother of two and founder of Key West Insider Guide. She’s lived in Key West since 1994 and moved to Sugarloaf in 2014. Barr, 46, is a mother and chef at Lost Kitchen Supper Club in Stock Island. She’s lived in Key West on and off for 24 years and has lost two homes to hurricanes, George in 1998 and Wilma in 2005. “My house was fine this time,” Barr says and so she was inclined to help others in need.

Barr plans the daily menu, which typically consists of a gourmet sandwich, grain salad, fruit and baked good with a hot soup option. The emphasis on homemade, thoughtfully prepared, delicious food is at the core of their mission.

“Some people haven’t had a hot or home-cooked meal in days or weeks. When you make something that’s nourishing and healthy and give it to someone who’s been working hard, whose body is stressed out, who’s only had access to junk food, they feel the love that went into it,” says Barr. “Physiologically, their body also responds.”

They’ve served breakfast, lunch and dinner, and prepared everything from lasagna to enchiladas and corn chowder. They always provide a vegetarian option worthy of any restaurant menu, like today’s sandwich made with shredded beets, roasted red peppers, romanesco, spinach and lemon artichoke puree. They’ve also started a Friday happy hour run, passing out cold beers donated by Kalik, a Bahamian brewery, paired with something warm, like meatballs or BLTs. “That one’s always popular,” says Bisztray with a smile.

A group of women gather to assemble meals at the home of Margit Bisztray to be distributed to workers, volunteers, and residents rebuilding Big Pine Key on Wednesday, October 25, 2017. CARL JUSTE

Once the lunchboxes are assembled, the women load them into a couple of cars and divide and conquer. Today, they’re heading to a neighborhood in Big Pine known as The Avenues. The area is made up primarily of mobile and modular homes and it was hit particularly hard. “People think the recovery’s finished,” Bisztray says on the drive north to Mile Marker 30. “Not where we go. People are still in rescue mode.”

On the Atlantic side of U.S. 1, debris is piled two stories high on Ramrod Key where excavators and dump trucks work to process and haul it off the island. Signs of the storm’s aftermath are apparent all along the highway from Key Largo to Key West, but it takes on a human scale when Bisztray and Barr turn into The Avenues.

The roads are lined with the bowels of homes that can’t be salvaged: mattresses, plywood, tires, insulation, boat hulls, broken glass, dive flags, rusted metal, ovens, chairs. Some plots have been cleared, others are a discombobulated jumble of disrepair with walls blown out or blue tarps attached to damaged roofs as a temporary fix. Homes tagged with red notices have been condemned by the county and marked for demolition.

Volunteer Margit Bisztray delivers food to residents in the storm- ravaged area of Big Pine Key in the Florida Keys on Oct. 25, 2017. CARL JUSTE

“We haven’t been here in two days. It changes so much,” says Bisztray.

Their first stop is to a mobile home behind a chain-link fence draped with a giant American flag. A No Trespassing sign is scrawled onto a piece of cardboard affixed to a plastic lawn chair, warding off looters. Donna Allison shuffles outside barefoot and suntanned in a sarong. Her dark grey hair is pulled back into a long ponytail. She has good news today. She’s just been approved for a FEMA trailer to live in while her home undergoes repairs. “It’ll be nice to take a shower that’s not from the hose,” she says.

Barr hands her a lunchbox and soup. “Roast beef and chicken noodle today,” she says.

Allison’s face softens, her eyes light up. “Thank you,” she smiles. Barr puts her arm around Allison’s shoulders in an embrace. . Allison is 59. She’s disabled and needs new teeth. She’s lived here for 27 years. “My home was paid for,” she says, surveying the destruction. “I thought I was rich.”

This is the case for many of the residents of The Avenues. They’re over 55, retired or close to it, with limited resources and health problems. Irma’s impact on their livelihoods is profound. Some people are still without power and water. Some people are going to lose everything. But not everyone’s situation is dire. Across the street, spirits are high and music is blaring with a work party of friends and family repairing one man’s home.

Bisztray and Barr are on a first-name basis with residents. There’s Sandra and Charlie, Jimmy and Piper, Brian, Joseph, Skip, Bill. They’re greeted affectionately as “angels” or “the soup ladies.” They’ve learned about dietary preferences. They ask what else is needed and take their time listening to stories, stepping inside of homes, learning how everyone’s doing from day to day.

Chef Layla Barr, left, tries to comfort Bill Dicioccio, 75, right, a veteran whose trailer home suffered heavy damage and is facing possible evacuation. Barr is one of the founders of Nourishing the Lower Keys, a group of Key West women making meals to distribute to workers, volunteers and residents rebuilding Big Pine Key. CARL JUSTE

Walking up the block, they pass two men surveying a lot that’s already been cleared. At first, the men are hesitant to accept the lunchboxes, but eventually do. “Thank you,” one concedes. “Good timing. I was starving.”

Barr says that some people think they don’t need the lunch. “‘Give it to someone else,’ they say. But maybe you just need a break. You’re out here working hard in the sun. It’s stressful. Maybe you can afford to buy food, but you don’t have time to think about making a meal at the end of the day. This is so helpful.”

“People are still in shock,” adds Bisztray. “They’re not fully functioning.”

“I always think we’re going to drive home with food we weren’t able to hand out,” says Barr. “But it hasn’t happened yet. We always give it all away.” For now, they plan to keep the operation going through November and will assess how the project might evolve from there.

“I definitely think I’ve discovered another calling with this work,” Bisztray reflects.

Volunteer Margit Bisztray, right, delivers food to a worker in the heavily storm damaged area of Big Pine Key on Oct. 25, 2017. CARL JUSTE

They arrive at Joan Thoman’s house. The second floor of her three-story home is gone. The top floor, with a low pitched gable roof and wood siding, was knocked to the ground and is crumpled at a diagonal against the cinderblock ground floor. It looks like Dorothy’s house plunked down in Oz, and all the more so because Thoman’s son-in-law installed a pair of legs with ruby slippers at the bottom.

A team of a dozen Samaritan’s Purse volunteers from all over the country are assembled up a ladder and on the exposed second floor wearing orange T-shirts. They’re sorting through the remains of her home, separating what can be salvaged from what cannot.

Thoman, 75, is petite and wiry with curly white-blonde hair, bright eyes and a wide smile. She’s lived here with her husband George for 30 years and estimates it will take at least a year to rebuild. A visit from Bisztray and Barr is the highlight of her day.

She’s especially a fan of Barr’s soup and will sometimes drink it straight from the container without a spoon. “We love them,” she says. “We wait for them every day.”

How to Help

Nourishing the Lower Keys

To contact Margit Bisztray: