Holiday meal handout to feed island residents in need

Distribution set for Dec. 21 in Key Largo, Marathon and Big Pine Key

Key Lime Products Owner Violet Wahba hands out a bag of food during a meal distribution earlier in the year in Key Largo. KEYS WEEKLY FILE PHOTO

A holiday meal handout in three Keys locations is set for Monday, Dec. 21 to assist individuals and families in need of a little assistance this season. 

From Key Largo to Key West, thousands of meals were distributed during the coronavirus pandemic to many who lost their jobs and needed some help. Through the nonprofit Mangrove Mike’s Endeavor’s Paying it Forward, what started as a hot meal handout at Islamorada’s Mangrove Mike’s Cafe quickly grew to other parts of the island chain including Bahama Village, Marathon and Key Largo. 

Marathon Mayor Luis Gonzalez recently reached out to Mike Forster, nonprofit founder and county commissioner, about feeding Marathon families in need this holiday season. 

“I called Mike (Forster) after thanksgiving and asked if we would be interested in restarting his organization to feed people over the holidays,” Gonzalez said. At the height of the pandemic and unemployment, the two worked side by side at the food distribution center at Brutus Seafood. “We decided it should be reactivated Keyswide.”

While agreeing to the idea, Forster expressed a desire to help as many families as they could throughout Monroe County. The food distributions will go from 4-7 p.m. at Marathon’s community park and Key Largo School. 

Like his feedings, which evolved quickly from his restaurant to Bahama Village, the holiday feeding took a life of its own. Several phone calls were made at the outset that resulted in $15,000 in donations and more than 1,200 U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrition boxes for distribution. USDA boxes were handed out during past food drives up and down the Keys.

“Those boxes not only come with veggies and starches, but they also come with milk and cottage cheese to give more nutrition to the family,” Forster said. “We have enough to feed around 1,500 families. Who knows, it might be more.”

Forster added they’re looking to give out either a turkey or pork. He’s also hoping to hand out desserts and bread, but that all depends on donations received. 

“The more money we raise, the more money we put in these packages,” Forster said. “Right now, it’s still a great thing to do with these USDA boxes, plus a turkey or a pork butt, but we’d like to add on to that for a greater value and greater good for people who need it the most.”

Gonzalez said Middle Keys supporters, including private and corporate donors like Publix, have signed on. So has the base group of volunteers to help distribute the food. 

“Plus we will have the help of Marathon’s Parks and Recreation Department and volunteers from the Sheriff’s Office, Gonzalez said. 

The food baskets include all the makings for a holiday meal including dessert, plus leftovers.

Those wishing to donate can visit and click “donate.” Instructions are also given for those wishing to mail in a check. Any donation is tax deductible. With donations made to Mangrove Mike’s Endeavors, people witness where their money is going, Forster said. 

“They see the boots on the ground and people driving through the lines. You see the camaraderie of the people who are handing out the food and how we love what we’re doing in giving back to our community. That’s why I was able to raise close to $300,000 between donations and product in seven weeks when COVID first hit.”

Forster added the one-time holiday food drive on Dec. 21 is an added bonus to the many other organizations supplying meals to Keys residents in need every day.

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Jim McCarthy is a Western New Yorkers who escaped the snow and frigid temperatures for warm living by the water. A former crime & court reporter and city editor for two Western New York newspapers, Jim has been honing his craft since he graduated from St. Bonaventure University in 2014. In his 3-plus years in the Keys, Jim has enjoyed connecting with the community. “One of my college professors would always preach to be curious,” he said. “Behind every person is a story that’s unique to them, and one worth telling. As writers, we are the ones who paint the pictures in the readers minds of the emotions, the struggles and the triumphs.” Jim is past president of the Key Largo Sunset Rotary Club, which is composed of energetic members who serve the community’s youth and older populations. Jim is a sports fanatic who loves to watch football, mixed martial arts and golf. He loves to hit the links and play some softball with his Make A Play team. He also enjoys time with family and his new baby boy, Lucas, who arrived Oct. 4, 2022.