The world watched as Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico and later, as Hurricane Florence battered American coastal towns—two of many recent natural disasters to which chefs respond through World Central Kitchen. Among the destruction and loss, hope and hard work result in feeding the hungry people who remain behind, left to pick up the pieces.
José Andrés founded World Central Kitchen after the 2010 earthquake hit Haiti. He believed food could be an agent of change—today that belief has grown into a chef network improving health, contributing to education, jobs and social enterprise throughout the world in places like Brazil, Cambodia, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Nicaragua, Zambia and the United States.
And now, the enterprising chef who has changed lives throughout the world is nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, honoring his tireless efforts. The man who also received the James Beard Foundation’s award for Humanitarian of the Year (awarded to individuals or an organization in the food business who have bettered the lives of others and society at large.) Maryland U.S. Representative John Delaney confirmed he nominated Andrés for the award. And, in October 2019, the winner will be revealed.
“World Central Kitchen’s relief efforts in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria totaled 3.7 million meals served from 26 kitchens across the island and mobilizing an army of over 20,000 chefs and volunteers,” said Erin Schrode, Chief Operating Officer for World Central Kitchen. “Most recently, in addition to WCK’s work in Puerto Rico, the team has activated for other natural disasters in Hawaii, California, Guatemala, Indonesia, and currently has served over 175,000 meals to victims of Hurricane Florence.”
It all began with Andrés’ World Central Kitchen, which has become a source of hope and healing in the aftermath of disaster, launched with a pot of stew and chef Andres serving it bowl-by-bowl to survivors who needed a meal. Schrode says his inspired efforts began when the chefs started cooking and the people came from far and wide.
“In the case of Puerto Rico, we moved into the biggest area in San Juan and had 400 volunteers every day putting out 60-70,000 meals a day from one kitchen and there is something so special about a hot and hearty plate of food,” said Schrode. “It’s a reminder that people are not forgotten and at its peak in Puerto Rico, we were making 150,000 meals a day—with hunger, the emergency is now.”
World Central Kitchen staff and volunteers work with locals, non-profits, churches, the Red Cross and hospitals to create kitchens. While World Central Kitchen is a chef-driven emergency response, volunteers have raced to aid in the efforts, including OpenTable sales team members Rebecca Sherman and Robert Ramos.
“It’s always inspiring to see others sacrifice their own time for others in need, especially while they themselves are also experiencing hardship,” said Ramos. “Doing so and staying positive day after day is admirable and necessary for the human progress, so thank you World Central Kitchen for helping Puerto Rico.”
Sherman and Ramos spent their time at World Central Kitchen helping preparations.
“The World Central Kitchen team is amazing, working six days a week providing meals for thousands each day,” said Sherman. “To hear about someone’s home being destroyed, however their first thought is to come help others, speaks volumes about the people of Puerto Rico.”
World Central Kitchen’s Schrode says the process runs more efficiently than any response she has ever seen and that it was just as important for restaurants to be able to return to feeding people.
“Restaurants were starting to open again and people began to go back to work so in the case of Puerto Rico, we shifted our focus to more remote areas of the island because we want a thriving food economy,” she said. “In buying the harvest, we purchased through local supply chains to create jobs, be good stewards of the land and boost the economy in rural parts of the island which were hard hit.”
The importance of creating and sustaining jobs when people consider shutting down businesses has a wide-ranging impact, including the nutritional needs and availability of healthy food for underserved populations.
“After Maria, we wanted to improve food access and food independence, focusing on agriculture as the root of that and generations of farmers and chefs, all of whom came together to launch this movement,” said Schrode. “A hot plate of food means so much and you feel it when people tell you they were going hungry.”
Helicopter drops to mountain towns to people who hadn’t had a hot meal in three weeks, residents who lost everything including water supply and living in areas with no walls or jobs resonated with World Central Kitchen volunteers. Challenges remained after the storm where cooking with no water, no heat and no fuel was impossible.
Donations through go towards purchasing ingredients locally, cooked by locals and staff hired to serve people in need, a model which Schrode says has proven successful.
“World Central Kitchen has been able to bring it to life with a scale and impact we couldn’t have predicted, from the fires in California to volcanos in Hawaii to hurricanes, we are emergency response from the point of chefs,” she said. “There are also stresses that can follow a disaster, so what we call comfort food extends beyond the meal itself to the people who show up to serve, and that connection provides a sense of unity around food and a sense of purpose.”
World Central Kitchen remains invested in Puerto Rico through Plow To Plate, the organization’s partnership and grants program awarding hundreds of thousands of dollars to small farmers in Puerto Rico. Schrode says they provide capital and connections the farmers need to revitalize Puerto Rico’s food economy. In World Central Kitchen’s other objectives, advocating for cleaner cooking with clean cook stoves and food safety/sanitation training, programs within schools and culinary job training lead to success in social enterprise, in which food ventures result from vocational training in low-income communities.
Chefs who wish to volunteer can sign up to join the chef network for deployment in the face of disaster at WorldCentralKitchen.org.