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Activist-chef José Andrés teams with GWU on a Global Food Institute

The new unit of George Washington University will focus on policy and solutions to hunger and related challenges

José Andrés in March 2020. The chef turned his Washington restaurants into community kitchens during the coronavirus crisis. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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George Washington University is teaming with chef and humanitarian activist José Andrés to launch a Global Food Institute in the nation’s capital, with a mandate to study inequities in hunger, nutrition and related issues, as well as identify solutions to problems with the world’s food supply.

For Andrés, a Spanish American immigrant who has founded numerous restaurants in the Washington area, the intersection of food with humanitarian issues — including disaster relief — has long been a major focus. Now he wants to help bolster academic inquiries into the food system. The university announced Tuesday that Andrés has made a “founding gift” — of an unspecified amount — to establish the institute.

“Food themes are at the heart of many of the problems we face, when food can and should be the solution,” Andrés said Monday in a brief telephone interview. The chef said food is connected to immigration, defense, climate change, culture and so much more. “At the end, you see that food very much is everything,” he said.

Andrés said he wants to study and act on the issue from every possible angle. “The most important world issue should not be constrained by any one discipline,” he said.

Other backers of the institute include the Rockefeller Foundation and the Nelson A. and Michele M. Carbonell Family Foundation.

Among the D.C. restaurants Andrés has opened are Minibar by José Andrés, which has earned two Michelin stars, and Jaleo. He also founded the nonprofit food-relief organization World Central Kitchen.

When disaster strikes, chef José Andrés delivers food worldwide

Andrés has close ties to GWU. In 2013 he launched a course at the D.C.-based university called “The World on a Plate: How Food Shapes Civilization.” The popular course roams across disciplines from public health to politics and includes a paella party. The university awarded Andrés an honorary degree in public service in 2014.

At a typical university, many units can venture into the study of food — starting with, obviously, schools of agriculture. But academic institutes devoted to food have cast a fresh, interdisciplinary spotlight on the subject in recent decades. The University of Wisconsin at Madison has a Food Research Institute focused on food safety. The Berkeley Food Institute, affiliated with the University of California at Berkeley, aims to expand access to healthy and affordable food and promote “sustainable and equitable food production.” Tufts University hosts a Food & Nutrition Innovation Institute with a similar mission.

Another food institute based at Indiana University recently closed, according to James Farmer, an associate professor of public and environmental affairs at the university in Bloomington, Ind. However, he said, that was an exception to the trend. “These are really important topics and issues,” Farmer said. “We study it from a variety of lenses. It’s a growing field. It’s growing like mad, to be honest.”

At GWU, which has about 26,000 students, discussions with Andrés about the institute have been in the works for several years, said university Provost Christopher A. Bracey. He said the institute will tackle food-associated questions of policy, innovation and humanities. Faculty members from various schools will be affiliated with it.

Andrés, it is clear, will be more than a donor. Bracey said the chef is “a unique figure to not only begin the funding of this but help shape the founding direction.”

The ‘margarita diplomacy’ of José Andrés

University officials are mindful that Andrés, a prolific entrepreneur in the restaurant business, has also developed broad political and philanthropic connections through his work on relief missions following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and other disasters.

“We want José involved as much as we can have him involved,” Bracey said.