Yelling through the downpour, celebrity chef José Andrés tells the camera, “I want everybody to understand, we are not near the hurricane. We are like 90 miles away.” In the background, the wind blows in loud gusts as the outskirts of Category 5 Hurricane Dorian pummels the Bahamas—a sure sign of the destruction happening those tens of miles away in the Abaco Islands, which suffered the brunt of the storm.
Andrés braved the storm in the Bahamas as the founder of (and self-described “highly active volunteer” with) World Central Kitchen, an organization that brings meals to people hit by both natural and manmade disasters, such as hurricanes and U.S./Mexico border crisis, and also serves as an educational and job training nonprofit. The organization’s staff has traveled from Indonesia to Mozambique to Guatemala to Houston to provide simple free meals and water for inhabitants dealing with total chaos. WCK responded to 19 different disasters so far this year, and has served more than 10 million meals since its inception.
“Especially in the last few years, we’ve been to so many places around the world,” says Andrés. “The learning from the last several years is paying off.”
This week marks a milestone for WCK. At UN Climate Week in New York City, the organization is announcing its Climate Disaster Fund. The plan is to eventually raise $50 million toward disaster response efforts, $5 million of which has already been provided by funders, says WCK’s executive director, Nate Mook. Some of this funding is already being used to provide meals to people in the Bahamas. The rest will go toward WCK’s future relief efforts. As Mook reminds, “Hurricane season is far from over, and California continues to battle wildfires.”
When Andrés founded WCK in 2010, an earthquake had just devastated Haiti, killing about 300,000 and decimating the island’s infrastructure. At first, the organization was solely an educational and job training nonprofit, teaching locals how to cook, installing clean cook stoves, and making sure schools serve healthy lunches. In 2016, after Hurricane Matthew hit Haiti, Andrés and a group of chefs traveled to the island and gave away cooked meals, starting the disaster relief branch of the organization. Andrés did the same in Houston after Hurricane Harvey, but WCK didn’t achieve wide recognition until its staff journeyed to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria hit in September 2017. There, WCK served 3.7 million meals in 2017 and 2018, bringing food to every municipality in Puerto Rico and becoming the largest food-providing operation specifically targeting Maria survivors.
But Andrés drew the most attention for his clashes with President Trump. After Trump endlessly derided immigrants, calling them “rapists,” during his campaign, Andrés pulled plans to open a restaurant in the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. Lawsuits—now settled—followed, but Andrés continues to call out the president for reasons ranging from his failure to provide aid to U.S. citizens suffering post-Maria in Puerto Rico to his xenophobic rhetoric concerning immigrants.
Andrés got his idea for WCK from a perhaps unlikely inspiration—Clara Barton, who helped injured soldiers, regardless of their affiliation, during the U.S. Civil War and founded the American Red Cross. “She created this amazing network and system to provide relief to wounded soldiers,” says Andrés. He wanted to offer aid in a similar fashion, but in the way he knew best—through cooking.
A chef and restaurateur, Andrés owns several dining establishments across the U.S., like Somni in Los Angeles, and specializes in Spanish cuisine. Cooking for the masses in a disaster, he’s learned, doesn’t have to be all canned meats and processed junk. Besides serving “big ham and cheese sandwiches with lots of calories and a piece of fresh fruit,” Andrés says the meals WCK provides in disaster-struck areas tend to depend on the available local ingredients, a sharp contrast from the package foods usually brought in by more established disaster relief organizations.
“In Indonesia, because we are using local chefs, we were doing Indonesian meals,” he says. “The same in Mozambique, the same in the Bahamas, and the same in Puerto Rico, with [meals like] arroz con pollo.”
Using local resources is about more than sustainability and convenience. “At the end of the day in these emergencies, [local fare] is what people love the most and what people appreciate the most,” he says.
Of course, there are many logistical challenges to serving food in disaster sites. “For example, in the Bahamas we have transported over 1.2 million pounds of food and supplies to cook with from Florida on a boat we chartered,” says Mook.
But this does not deter Andrés. “I read about many people saying that [helping] Puerto Rico was impossible because of the destruction,” he says. “I’m sorry, but days after the hurricane we were driving all across the country.” And sure, it’s hard to get supplies to a hurricane-ravaged island, but according to Andrés, relief efforts on such isolated land masses are “also an opportunity, because you have clear boundaries of where you need to provide aid.”
So far, WCK has served more than 500,000 meals in the Bahamas since Dorian hit. The team arrived in the capital with a crew of eight three days before the hurricane struck. Another 10 or 12 people were waiting in Florida with the boat that would transfer over food and supplies. WCK had been planning to set up at a hotel in Marsh Harbour, a town in the devastated Abaco Islands, but no dice. It was “totally destroyed,” says Andrés.
Instead, the team started distributing food by helicopter, using the hotel’s still functional helipad. They used cars locals loaned or rented to them, loading them with fuel from grounded boats found in the middle of the streets.
“We are still cooking and delivering 20,000 meals every day,” Mook says of WCK’s efforts in the Bahamas. Says Andrés, “Production for us is never an issue.”
The cost of providing meals, however, varies. “In some cases, where we can scale up a kitchen operation quickly, purchase ingredients in bulk, and where complex distribution is not required, costs are lower,” says Mook. This is not so in the Bahamas, a series of islands that are difficult to travel between efficiently and where the local food supply is limited. Ideally, WCK shoots for an average single meal cost of between $2 and $4. The organization gets its funding from private donations, including from foundations, businesses, and individual donors.
The biggest obstacle to providing aid in a disaster, Andrés says, is “inaction.”
“If you start doing a very simple list with very clear partners of who is taking care of every single problem, response can be unbelievable,” he says. “With no one taking ownership, the poor people of the world are the ones that suffer most.” Over UN Climate Week, it’s become clear to Andrés what kinds of leaders we need to make this happen.
“We need to start making sure we have leaders who are humble in their responsibility to serve others . . . not leaders who expect us to be reverent to them,” he says, referencing the sitting U.S. president. “We need leaders that lead for everybody, not only for the ones that clap at their words.”