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José Andrés and his World Central Kitchen feed refugees fleeing Ukraine

Chef José Andrés and volunteers from World Central Kitchen serve hot food to Ukrainian families that crossed into Poland on Feb. 27. (World Central Kitchen)
6 min

Ukrainian people crossing into neighboring Poland as they flee the violence from the Russian invasion of their country face an uncertain future.

But first, they’re being greeted by cups of hot tea and chicken-and-vegetable soup, as chef José Andrés and his World Central Kitchen operation have mobilized to feed the thousands of refugees streaming into Poland, Romania, Moldova and, beginning Monday, Hungary.

Nate Mook, the group’s chief executive, on Monday described a chaotic scene and freezing temperatures at the border crossings in Poland, where he was helping to marshal an “ad hoc” group of volunteers. In the few days since the invasion began, upending life for Ukrainians fleeing the Russian forces, Mook had seen a group of farmers handing out eggs and kielbasa along a road. A ramen food truck was ladling out soup. One volunteer he met was a young man from London who had traveled to the area to join the fight against Russian troops in his native country.

“He had never fired a gun in his life, and he decided the best way to fight was to serve meals,” said Mook, who spoke from the town of Ustrzyki Dolne. “We’re seeing people who are passionate about helping.”

I volunteered at World Central Kitchen to feed the hungry. I ended up finding the meaning I needed.

World Central Kitchen, which deploys resources around the globe to areas hit by natural disasters and conflict, will serve 10,000 hot meals Monday, Mook says, and 25,000 Tuesday. “We’re ramping up really quickly,” he said.

In a video he posted Sunday on Twitter from a WCK facility in Poland, Andrés said, “People are cold, families are cold.” He described the location as being along a road about a third of a mile from the Ukrainian border. “They are bringing children. It’s freezing cold — I don’t know how they make it.”

In addition to the operation assisting refugees, WCK is also helping local restaurants in the Ukrainian cities of Odessa and Lviv feed those who have stayed in the country. Andrés described reaching out to people inside Ukraine. “We are telling them, ‘Guys, there are many ways to fight. Some people fight making sure people are fed,’ and those are our people, and we are going to be supporting them in many ways.”

In the video, he described a three-phase plan that first addresses feeding refugees as they cross at the borders and those remaining in the country. After that, the organization plans to focus on helping feed people at refugee facilities in neighboring countries. Finally, he said, the third phase would take place once the fighting has stopped in Ukraine, and WCK would help organize trucks to enter Ukraine and establish community kitchens in various communities.

“I will make sure we don’t fail,” he said.

Mook said the organization had already entered the second phase and has begun feeding people at shelters, including a pop-up facility in a nearby grocery store that had been converted to a temporary shelter.

He said the organization plans to step up efforts to get more food into Ukraine for the duration of the fighting, as supplies inside the country dwindle because of blocked roads and shuttered stores, making it difficult for people to feed themselves. Andrés, he said, is possibly going to go into Ukraine himself to deliver flour to a group of nuns in Lviv who were preparing meals.

He said the organizers are hoping that the conflict ends quickly, but they are ready for a prolonged stay. “We have a plan for the worst,” he said. “We can be here as long as we’re needed.” Mook said additional aid is arriving from the United Nations and the World Food Program. But he said the fast-moving Ukrainian conflict demanded something at the heart of the WCK model: speed.

“We’re good at moving quickly,” he said. “A lot is being done at the institutional level, but we know the need is here on the ground and it’s immediate.”

Elsewhere around the world, the food community rallied to help support the Ukrainian people.

Bakers Against Racism, a collective originally formed to support the Black Lives Matter movement, launched an online bake sale in which members are selling cookies, pies and cakes, with proceeds going to humanitarian groups including Save the Children, International Rescue Committee, Sunflower of Peace and WCK.

Co-founder and pastry chef Paola Velez said more than 200 members, who include restaurant chefs, home bakers and caterers, have participated so far. The organization doesn’t track the donations, she said, but every contribution counts. She said she was surprised by the response, given how difficult things are for many people in the food industry. “Anyone running a restaurant is doing it by the skin of their teeth right now,” she said. “But bakers — they don’t ever not amaze me.”

A group of chefs and food writers in the United Kingdom has organized #CookforUkraine, which encourages people to hold supper clubs or bake sales to raise money for UNICEF. So far, the effort has raised about $12,000. “As my heart breaks to see my native country forging a war with its close neighbour, I turn to food for its power to heal, to educate, to unite and to support,” wrote organizer Alissa Timoshkina, a London-based food writer and podcast host. “Like millions of Russians, I too have Ukrainian roots, and grew up on a beautiful diet of Ukrainian and Russian dishes. These countries have shared a complex and rich history, and the culinary language reflects this relationship in the most powerful and relatable way.”

Restaurants, too, have become fundraising hubs. In Washington, Dacha Beer Garden is holding events and specials to support humanitarian aid. And D Light Cafe, which is owned by a pair of Ukrainian-native sisters, is holding a trivia night to raise money.

Others are reaching out to fellow chefs among the refugees. Damian Wawrzyniak, a chef at the modern Polish restaurant House of Feasts in the British city of Peterborough, offered two U.K. work visas and flights to Ukrainian chefs fleeing their home country, an offer he said on Twitter that he had discussed with his local member of Parliament, who was helping arrange it. He has since also organized transportation to take donated clothing and other supplies, including hand sanitizer collected from another Polish restaurant, to Ukraine.

Ukrainian eateries in the United States have seen an outpouring of support from customers hoping to show solidarity with Ukraine. Local news reports and social media posts noted people lining up to dine at Veselka, the longtime Ukrainian diner in New York, this weekend. The restaurant was selling a special edition of New York’s iconic black-and-white cookies in the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

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