This story has been updated.
A week ago, President Trump issued a warning on Twitter: He could not keep the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the military and other first responders in Puerto Rico forever, he wrote. His tweet was quickly viewed by some as a threat that the government might abandon its own territory before the island could recover from the devastating blow delivered by Hurricane Maria in mid-September.
On Tuesday, chef and restaurateur José Andrés said his nonprofit, World Central Kitchen, and the hundreds who have volunteered to help it, would keep feeding Puerto Ricans until the locals could again take care of themselves, which could take awhile. According to FEMA, only 14 percent of the island has electricity, and many areas still have no drinking water or access to fresh food.
“When we establish contact with a community, we maintain that contact,” Andrés said during a phone interview from San Juan. “When we go to a place, we take care of that place until we feel it has the right conditions to sustain itself. That’s what a relief organization should be.”
Andrés landed in Puerto Rico on Sept. 25 and immediately started working with chef José Enrique, whose eponymous San Juan restaurant was already preparing batches of sancocho — a Puerto Rican beef stew — for hungry residents. In their first couple of days together, the chefs produced enough food to feed 1,000 or 2,000 people. Within a week of Andrés’s appearance on the island, their numbers skyrocketed to 25,000 meals per day, now including sandwiches and paella.
Nearly a month after Maria, Andrés, World Central Kitchen and volunteers have reached a milestone in their #chefsforpuertorico campaign: As of Tuesday, they had prepared and delivered one million hot meals to residents. As a point of comparison, the American Red Cross has delivered 150,000 MREs (or meals ready to eat), 302,000 meal boxes, and 1.4 million pounds of canned goods, rice, beans, crackers, fruit, vegetables and other shelf-stable foods, said Elizabeth Penniman, vice president of communications for the organization. She estimated that those supplies equate to 1.6 million meals “served” in Puerto Rico after hurricanes” Irma and Maria.
“To be clear,” Penniman wrote in an email Wednesday, “the primary mission for the American Red Cross in Puerto Rico is to provide emergency supplies and to support reunification for those missing loved ones.”
FEMA has provided more than 14 million meals and 11 million liters of water in all 78 municipalities in Puerto Rico, said spokesman Dan Stoneking. That number includes meals provided by state, local and volunteer organizations, such as World Central Kitchen, which FEMA has helped fund. Many of FEMA’s meals are military and civilian MREs, or meals ready to eat, which do not include hot food.
How Andrés and crew have pulled off this feat is a story that’s difficult to piece together on a cellphone call to Puerto Rico, where service remains spotty and the chef remains too swamped to walk a reporter through all the complex logistics of feeding an island with little gas, electricity or transportation. The chef said it started with Enrique’s restaurant and has now expanded to 15 kitchens, including the Coliseo de Puerto Rico in San Juan, where the majority of the meals are prepared. Between 450 and 500 volunteers are involved daily.
In fact, after Andrés navigated Houston’s flooded streets to help feed the city following Hurricane Harvey, he learned an important lesson about relief operations: You need a facility with a large-capacity kitchen to prepare meals on a massive scale; otherwise you’ll never quiet a city’s hunger pains following a disaster. In Houston, Andrés worked at the downtown convention center. But in Puerto Rico, he initially couldn’t get access to the coliseum.
“First, I wanted to come to the coliseo, where I am right now, because I was looking for the biggest kitchen, and they told me, ‘No way, José,'” Andrés recalled, now laughing at the story. A week later, however, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and first lady Beatriz Areizaga helped the chef secure access to the coliseum, where cooks now prepare more than 60,000 meals a day.
Assistance has come from a variety of sources, Andrés said. Donors, large and small, have contributed millions of dollars to World Central Kitchen. Goya Foods loaned WCK its helicopter to fly food into remote regions in the mountains. (The helicopter also helped crews locate a working kitchen, which is now one of the 15 spots for meal preparation.) Even Homeland Security has assisted with food distribution, Andrés said, after the agency helped the chef locate a missing person.
“I became friends with them,” he said of Homeland Security personnel. “We saw that they were going to the very hard-hit areas and that they were going with their cars halfway empty. They said we could bring food, so we began giving them food. They began taking thousands of sandwiches.”
FEMA initially provided money to World Central Kitchen to prepare 20,000 meals. But when the agency tried to negotiate a second contract to prepare another 20,000 meals, Andrés balked. The chef wanted money for 120,000 meals, which exceeded FEMA’s authority to grant without putting the contract out to bid, an agency spokesman said. Regardless, FEMA said it was still looking at another contract with WCK to fund the organization’s meals program.
“FEMA used me as a puppet to show that they were doing something,” Andrés told the magazine about the original contract.
Several days later, Andrés dialed down his rhetoric, if not his desire to see more from his government. The native Spaniard became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2013.
“You know me, nobody holds me back. But at the same time, you have to be strategic,” Andrés said. He understands that FEMA employees have to abide by the rules and the thresholds established by people higher up in the agency. But he would still like to see more flexibility from the agency, particular during times of crisis.
“Bureaucracy needs to give them the tools to move quick and fast to take care of people,” he said. “If bureaucracy doesn’t allow them to move quick and fast, it’s a problem.”
Andrés is not just talking the talk, either. Since he arrived in Puerto Rico, he has put much of his life on hold in Washington, where he oversees ThinkFoodGroup, a company with more than a dozen restaurants, a catering division and a food truck. Andrés was in Puerto Rico, in fact, when he heard the news that Minibar, the chef’s gastronomic funhouse in Penn Quarter, maintained its two Michelin stars.
In the three-plus weeks since Maria pummeled the island, Andrés has been home only three or four days, he said. He returned once after becoming dehydrated.
“The reality here is very hard to escape. My question is, if we don’t do it, who’s going to do it?” Andrés said about feeding Puerto Ricans. “Fresh food is hard to come by . . . Sometimes the only fresh food people are eating is fruit we are bringing. The only hot meal they are eating is the lukewarm meal we are bringing.”
Andrés hopes that World Central Kitchen is demonstrating what kind of results a nonprofit with a “private sector mentality” can achieve. He suspects that, in years to come, others will be examining “our successes and failures and how we did it.”
“How we were able to go from 100 meals to a million meals,” he added. The secret, Andrés noted, was the chef community, the many volunteers who picked up a knife and got to it. A chef’s disposition, Andrés said, is to know how to adapt to crisis.
“We are survivors,” he said. “We never wanted to be here for so long . . . But circumstances invited us to be part of it.”
Then Andrés remembered a favorite quote from literature, taken from a John Steinbeck novel: “Where there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I will be there,” he said.
Andrés remembered the quote almost verbatim. It’s a line from Tom Joad, the central character in Steinbeck’s Depression-era novel, “The Grapes of Wrath.” Joad is the one who experiences a major transformation over the course of the story. He, as CliffsNotes reminds us, undergoes a “moral journey from self to community, from ‘I’ to ‘we.’”
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