Feature: José Andrés Wants to Feed the World

by Catherine Trifiletti

The chef and humanitarian is rising to the occasion as the coronavirus threatens food security for thousands.

“Wherever there is a fight so that hungry people may eat … we will be there. We must be there.”- José Andrés

Over Easter weekend, humanitarian chef José Andrés was in virus-stricken New York City, where his non-profit World Central Kitchen (WCK) has been providing meals for needy and sequestered New Yorkers. “New York City remains the epicenter of the COVID-19 epidemic,” he tweeted recently. “We’ve been here for almost a month now, distributing more than 40,000 meals a day in over 70 localities, and we’ll be reaching more communities who need it most.”

At the same time in Washington, the city’s World Central Kitchen relief team cooked 1,200 meals for the Metro Police Department who– he says – “had a very rough week” with the unexpected passing of two of its officers. José Andrés has also joined forces with the Washington Nationals to prepare around 5,000 meals a day for distribution to seniors and local families most affected by the COVID-19 crisis.

The organization’s effort is an extension of the Spanish-born (and now U.S. citizen) chef’s mission to turn such Biblical stories as the miracle of the loaves and fishes into modern reality to fill gaps left on the social system. Keeping communities fed, he believes, lowers tension and reduces the likelihood of public discontent. “Either we feed the U.S., especially in poor communities, or we will have civil unrest,” he once tweeted.

For someone thoroughly in sync with the bigger picture, the genial chef can’t resist being involved on a granular level even as his own restaurants across the world suffer from closures due to the coronavirus.

At present, World Central Kitchen is engaged in an extensive nationwide feeding operation, distributing more than 100,000 meals a day to millions of Americans who find themselves out of work and their children out of school. The current coronavirus crisis is perhaps the largest such challenge that WCK and Andrés have so far confronted. Before the virus officially reached the U.S., the chef’s team sprung into action providing meals to the quarantined passengers of the Diamond Princess cruise liner off the coast of Japan. A month later, Andrés himself traveled to Oakland, Calif. to assist with operations feeding those aboard the Grand Princess, another stranded ship.

Since 2010, when he founded the non-profit, the chef and his staff have been a fixture among first responders in disasters world wide. In addition to providing sustenance in disaster-stricken areas, WCK addresses supply chain challenges, enacting infrastructure solutions that last long after traditional relief organizations have dropped supplies and gone. Their initiation was in Haiti that same year, following that country’s devastating earthquake. Initially, WCK flew in food for stricken areas, and trucks to transport it; but a decade later the organization is still in Haiti, engaged in a program of building school and community kitchens, and distributing cookstoves to reduce the use of open coal and wood fires in food preparation. “We believe investing in clean cookstoves all around the world will not only save lives, but empower women and girls through access to more education,” he told Washington Life in 2016. The continued boots on the ground approach from the WCK exemplifies its dedication to producing infrastructure changes that last long after traditional relief organizations have dropped supplies and left.

In 2018, World Central Kitchen deployed to Colombia’s shared border with Venezuela to help the influx of Venezuelan refugees fleeing their country’s political unrest.

Locally WCK has partnered with EventsDC to operate food preparation and distribution out of the Nationals ballpark. The organization will continue to bolster its efforts as donations roll in. America’s Food Fund, created by Leonardo DiCaprio and philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs, notably handed over a generous sum.

As the U.S. continues to battle the health and economic fall out of COVID-19, Andrés and his team are addressing food disparities by putting restaurant workers back in kitchens to feed underserved communities and medical workers on the frontlines. Learn more at wck.org.

What are the main tenets of America Eats Now, your approach to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic?

We see a humanitarian food crisis unfolding before our eyes. On one side, people are hungry – the elderly who
cannot access their normal means of getting food, marginalized communities and vulnerable families, frontline health workers. For restaurants, for farmers, for producers the crisis is enormous, as their business has dropped more than they have ever seen.The system is breaking down … so we are meeting both of these problems with a huge opportunity: feeding the people in need by paying restaurants to stay cooking. If the restaurants are able to stay open and cook, they can hire back employees, purchase from farmers and suppliers, and then be sending these meals to everyone who needs to eat. We can make it much, much bigger if we can even be employing chefs to cook in massive spaces like stadiums … last week we activated at Nationals Park, where we are already cooking thousands of meals a day.

What are the differences between feeding people now versus doing so in a natural disaster?

The biggest difference is that we are all now practicing social distancing, both in the production of meals and the distribution. So in our kitchens, we are following all of our normal strong safety protocols, plus we are adding more on top… like keeping our cooking stations at a safe distance.And when we distribute, we usually are able to put up a sign that says “get your meals here,” and people will simply line up to pick up food, but now, people need to be six feet apart. Overall we need to be extra careful about keeping everyone safe and secure.

2020 is the 10th Anniversary of World Central Kitchen. What is the biggest lesson you have learned from then until now? 

In times of the greatest need, we start cooking with the urgency of now!

You have spoken of “weaponizing empathy.” Where does your seemingly endless well of empathy come from?

There have been many people in my life from a young age who have taught me to care … my parents were both nurses, who shared with me their own deep, deep empathy for others. My friend and mentor Robert Egger, who founded DC Central Kitchen, taught me early on about giving back, and that we should not be in the business of charity for our own benefit. My wife and three daughters keep me honest every single day. They are a check on me.

With so much devastation in the news, we are all craving positive stories. Can you share a recent moment or experience that has given you hope?

Last week I met the most amazing woman, Ms. Strickland, at the Capitol Hill Towers … she is 103 years old! She has seen so much in her life, can you even imagine a woman who has seen the entire last century? She filled me with inspiration and hope … and I promised her that when we’ve made it through this moment, I’ll come back and visit her and we can share a long, hopeful hug.

EVENTS DC AND THE WASHINGTON NATIONALS CHIP IN

WCK sets up operation in Nats Park and Events DC Unveils $18M in Relief for Restaurant and Hospitality Workers

Following Hurricane Maria, José Andrés turned Puerto Rico’s leading stadium – Coliseo de Puerto Rico – into a giant kitchen, producing thousands of meals a day. It was the first time WCK had used a sports facility as its center of operations.

Seeking to expand coronavirus-related operations locally, they obtained permission from the landlord of the Nats ballpark, Events DC, the city’s convention and sports authority. “We’ve used stadiums and arenas before,” Andrés said. “They’re part of the community in good times but they’re also an important part of the community in emergency times. We’re going to be producing tens of thousands of meals – whatever Washington DC, the mayor needs. Whatever the metropolitan area, Virginia, and Maryland needs.”

Events DC rolled out $18 million in hospitality and tourism relief to provide support to restaurants, hotels, and certain undocumented workers impacted by the crisis. The hospitality and tourism industry is the District’s second largest industry, employing more than 80,000 people, and therefore, “upended by the pandemic,” said Max Brown, Events DC chair. “This $18 million relief package will provide a vital lifeline of support to our local economy, by helping to lay a strong foundation for the recovery and supplements what Mayor Bowser and City Council have approved over the last several weeks. We’re all in this fight together and we remain dedicated to helping our city get back on its feet.”

The full relief package includes: $5 million for hospitality and restaurant recovery efforts, inclusive of both worker and operator relief; $5 million for hotels recovery efforts, including both worker and operator programs; $5 million for undocumented workers across Washington, DC; and $3 million dedicated to destination marketing efforts, with the focus first on bringing visitors back to DC

“The goal is not only to help our local hospitality and tourism industry now, but help fuel Washington, DC’s recovery,” said Gregory O’Dell, Events DC CEO.

 

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