But there is a deadly virus making the rounds, and because of it, Nationals Park has been converted into a food production and distribution facility to feed the needy. The baseball team and its philanthropic arm, Nationals Philanthropies, have partnered with World Central Kitchen to prepare thousands of meals a day, which are being distributed to seniors and hard-hit families, residents of public housing in the Navy Yard and Southwest Waterfront communities, and people who live in the neighborhoods surrounding the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy in Fort Dupont.
Neither the Nationals nor WCK are strangers to feeding the hungry. The club, working with the nonprofit group Nourish Now, has been distributing food at the end of every homestand to local low-income families. But the powerhouse in this partnership is WCK, the organization founded by humanitarian chef José Andrés, which is, at present, serving 100,000 meals a day in 30 cities across the country as millions of Americans find themselves out of work, and their children out of school, because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“José has been talking about this for a long time now,” said Nate Mook, chief executive of WCK, during a phone interview with The Washington Post. “José has spoken very publicly around how sporting arenas — Nats Park, Capital One Arena — they’re not actually buildings for sports, but they are giant restaurants with entertainment.”
World Central Kitchen demonstrated the importance of activating sports venues in Puerto Rico in 2017, after Hurricane Maria tore apart the U.S. territory. After some wrangling with local officials on the island, WCK was able to cook out of the Coliseo de Puerto Rico, which served as the primary production facility in feeding thousands of people left without food and electricity after the storm.
Getting access to Nationals Park was much easier. Mook said the Lerner family, majority owner of the Nats, as well as Events DC, the District’s convention and sports authority, were all supportive of the project, lending the use of the stadium. Both the Nationals and their concessions partner, Levy Restaurants, are also contributing staff to the effort. But there are some limitations: The crews can’t walk on the field, which the team still hopes to use for games this season, and the park is not open to the public for meal pickup. The operation is purely a production and distribution operation, Mook said.
WCK had been working out of the ThinkFoodGroup’s test kitchen — previously used for the Chefs for Feds relief program when the U.S. government was partially shutdown last year — to feed the hungry during the coronavirus outbreak. But because of the protocols required to confront a pandemic — social distancing between workers, packaging each meal individually — the smaller crew could produce only about 4,000 meals a day in the test kitchen on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Mook said.
Executives with WCK and the Nationals “did a few tours of [Nationals Park], just to make sure how the logistics would operate, and kind of came up with a plan of how they would migrate from their existing operation, which was bursting at the seams, over here to the ballpark,” said Jonathan Stahl, vice president of hospitality and guest experience for the Nationals.
There are anywhere between 30 and 75 people working at the park to produce and distribute food. They’re mostly working out of a single, large-scale kitchen, cranking out between 4,500 and 5,000 meals a day, including dishes such as oven-roasted turkey, beef fajitas and fish and coconut curry. But Mook said the operation can, with additional staff and funding, easily produce 50,000 meals a day. Most of the individually packaged meals are headed to distribution centers in highly impacted communities, but the crews at Nationals Park are also producing food for nonprofit groups, such as Miriam’s Kitchen and Dreaming Out Loud, as well as for hospital workers and first responders.
Food and staff safety have been high priorities. WCK has fine-tuned its safety protocols in the weeks since the group started serving meals to the quarantined staff and passengers aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Yokohama, Japan, Mook said. Masks, gloves, hand-washing, social distancing, sanitation and temperature checks of staff are all part of the daily routine.
“When people come in for the day, they get a temperature check. Their temperature has to be below 100 degrees in order to come into the room,” said the Nationals’ Stahl. “Then there’s a special area where everyone’s personal belongings go and are stored there while you’re in the place. There’s a hand-washing station where you put on a face mask, wash your hands and put on gloves before going to your station.”
Although it’s only in its first week of operation, the Nationals Park and WCK partnership has already drawn attention from others. Mook said WCK has recently touched base with the Maryland Stadium Authority, which manages Camden Yards in Baltimore. “They heard the news about Nationals Park and wanted to chat about the potential of using Camden Yards to prepare or distribute meals,” Mook said.
With teams in 12 cities, and funds going to chefs and restaurants in another 18 areas, WCK is producing tens of thousands of meals all across the country. It’s unclear how far the organization can go to feed America. The coronavirus crisis is unlike anything in the short history of WCK, which Andrés founded after a massive earthquake rocked Haiti in 2010. There is need for WCK’s services in every state in the union, Mook said.
WCK’s reach, Mook added, will be limited only by funding and available staff. Funding has been strong lately: Both filmmaker J.J. Abrams and television writer and producer Philip Rosenthal have made sizable donations, Mook said, and WCK is also one of the beneficiaries of America’s Food Fund, recently launched by actor Leonardo DiCaprio and business executive Laurene Powell Jobs. The GoFundMe account has already raised more than $13 million.
“There’s definitely a limit to how much we can do,” Mook said. “But we’re continuing to push that boundary.”
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