Mobilizing Miami’s Food Community to Feed Thousands

SURFSIDE, Florida – Ten days before the coronavirus pandemic shut down restaurants in Florida last year, Shemi Bar-Natan had just started a new business after serving a decade in the Israeli army, opening one hummus bar less than one Mile from the collapsing apartment building last month.

The pandemic hit his urban kosher restaurant, Vish, hard, but it was nothing compared to the past two weeks since the Champlain Towers South collapsed on May 24 among 6,000 residents and a strong Jewish community.

Since then, Mr. Bar-Natan, 58, has come to the restaurant every day to prepare fresh falafel, hummus and tahini and to give away more than 2,300 balls of falafel to rescuers, survivors and the families of the missing.

“My heart is with them,” said Mr Bar-Natan about the missing and survivors of the building collapse. “I will continue to do my best for the community, for the people and for the Surfside community. I come here every day with a smile and say: ‘Today I have to do good service for the people.’ “

While food trucks were first on the scene, emergency workers, cooks, and restaurants from across Miami-Dade County have stepped up, driving through hours of traffic and rerouted roads to deliver packaged meals.

Chef David Shim on Tuesday provided the relatives of the missing and survivors with dozens of take-away boxes of Korean steakhouse dinners from the Miami outpost of Cote, its Michelin-starred restaurant in New York.

“The last thing you think about when you find yourself in this state of emergency is to go to a restaurant,” said Shim. “I hope we can comfort her in any way we can.”

Many Surfside restaurants have pledged to continue helping as hundreds of rescuers recovered the bodies of about 64 other people on Thursday afternoon.

Joshua Marcus, 47, who has owned Josh’s Deli in Surfside for about 11 years, has delivered hundreds of sandwiches to everyone affected by the breakdown and rebuilding efforts. Through donations and a few deliveries of free meat and bread, Mr. Marcus was able to feed anyone who wants their roast turkey, cured pastrami, and homemade corn beef without breaking the bank.

He said he has been there for his community for the past two weeks, including opening his restaurant as a de facto center for rescuers. “But it’s so hard to listen to over and over again,” said Mr. Marcus. “I’m not a shrink, I don’t have the ability to classify someone else’s pain without feeling it.”

As the city begins to open its streets, the Miami-Dade culinary community has pledged to continue feeding those involved in the arduous process of delivering remains to families for closure. The focus on people’s diet is how many cooks and volunteers felt like they were recovering from the tragedy.

Apartment collapse in Miami


July 8, 2021, 4:48 p.m. ET

“When the circus leaves town, we’re here,” said Sara Liss, 41, author of Miami Cooks, a Surfside resident and coordinator who supports Food Rescue US Miami, the nonprofit that organizes appropriate food donations with them has that need free meals.

The group is one of the few to step in when it became overwhelming for activists to organize the random food and supplies donations that were piling up.

“It’s not like a hurricane that you know is coming,” said Ellen Bowen, South Florida site manager for Food Rescue US. “It’s a bit of an earthquake.”

Ms. Bowen and Ms. Liss wanted the families to have hot meals that were not fast food and served dinners from different restaurants each week. They got peri-peri chicken and baked noodles; Brazilian home cooked chicken, rice and beans were delivered with a dulce de leche dessert and a note that read “Please accept this little gesture as our way of saying our thoughts and prayers are with you”.

About half a mile from the site of the collapse, volunteers work around the clock in the kitchen of Surf-n-Sides, a kosher beach bistro in the town’s community center that has been a hangout for families and local authorities since the building collapsed.

Eli Ginsburg, the owner of the bistro, and his friend Joe Zevuloni, 48, a local activist, have repurposed the restaurant’s kosher kitchen to prepare more than 3,000 meals a day, with the help of chefs and volunteers in orange vests. Through donations, they were able to pay more than $ 10,000 a day in fresh groceries and create dishes that included white sea bass, sesame chicken tender, teriyaki salmon, and rib eye steak. Warm pastelitos are filled in white paper bags and sealed with a sticker that says “Strong For Surfside”. Many police officers guarding the collapse site put the sticker on their uniforms.

The community center has become a center of grief as families come and go, grieving inwardly, and hugs the volunteers before looking for a meal. The tragedy also affects Mr Zevuloni and Mr Ginsburg, who have lost friends in the rubble.

At lunchtime, Mr. Zevuloni and several volunteers are transporting boxes of groceries on golf carts borrowed from nearby hotels to deliver meals to local rescuers every day. It’s worrying, he said when he returned on Wednesday afternoon. The rescuers seem exhausted from the search and rescue. Moments of gratitude and sadness enveloping Mr Zevuloni on-site witnesses, such as seeing a homemade dessert for rescuers being delivered by someone who had lost a family member with a note stating that it was their relatives’ favorite food .

“It’s heartbreaking,” he said. “But we’ll be here until we’re no longer needed.”

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