After preparing 2 million meals for the people of Puerto Rico, often the only hot food locals had on the island following Hurricane Maria, José Andrés and his nonprofit organization are now looking to expand their mission and focus their efforts on feeding other victims of natural disasters.
World Central Kitchen and the famous, globe-trotting chef who founded it have attracted a lot of attention for their work in Puerto Rico since they arrived in late September. The group, along with a network of chefs, restaurants, food trucks, schools and volunteers, has developed a whole new model for feeding the hungry following a disaster. They activated any working kitchen they could find, whether a school or a coliseum, and put it to work preparing fresh meals for residents.
Their efforts at preparing and distributing stews, paella and other hot meals have been particularly important in Puerto Rico, where locals have had to survive for weeks without gas, electricity, clean drinking water and money. If not for Andrés and World Central Kitchen, residents would have had to live on the MREs, snacks and junk food typically distributed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and nongovernmental organizations focused on relief. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that WCK has delivered more hot meals on the island than any other relief organization.
“Every single big NGO, they want to talk to us,” Andrés said Friday after taking part in a Washington Post Live conversation with fellow celebrity chef Alice Waters.
“We’re becoming a food operation,” Andrés said about World Central Kitchen. “We’ve been noticed by many, and now we have a lot of friends who are thinking out of the box and big. This goes from very big foundations to very big NGOs.”
Ever since the organization was founded in 2011, following the devastating earthquake in Haiti, World Central Kitchen has poured many of its resources into culinary job training, education, health and other projects aimed at improving lives through food. Among other efforts, the group has established a culinary school in Port-au-Prince and converted dozens of ovens from charcoal and wood to gas, eliminating the sooty, unhealthy environments in which school cooks across Haiti labored.
Their work in Puerto Rico, however, has probably altered World Central Kitchen’s future. In the past, WCK’s disaster relief efforts have been small and targeted, a week or two helping other agencies in cities like Houston after Hurricane Harvey. “I would always show up,” Andrés said. “But I showed up more as my own guy, trying to stir the pot.”
Those days are probably gone.
“We can’t back out of this,” Andrés said. “I think we did a good job. We weren’t perfect, but we did a good job. I can’t just say, ‘Now, I’m closing.’ It would be a disservice to America. We’ve shown that it can be done better, quicker, faster, more affordable and helping the local economies improve in the process.”
To make the jump into a major disaster relief organization, Andrés and WCK will have to make some big decisions. Will they focus on disasters on the American mainland? Or in the American territories in the Caribbean? Or any place where Americans are in need?
“We’ll go through that process in the next weeks,” Andrés said. “But obviously we cannot disappear. I mean, I wish I could disappear. I think our role has been fulfilled and maybe the reason I created World Central Kitchen was to take care of Puerto Rico. I don’t know. But I have a feeling that World Central Kitchen can’t go back to business as usual.”
At the heights of its #chefsforpuertorico campaign, World Central Kitchen operated 18 kitchens, including a central production facility at the Coliseo de Puerto Rico in San Juan. Crews were preparing and delivering more than 120,000 hot meals and sandwiches every day to reach all 78 municipalities on the island, burning through $300,000 to $400,000 a day to accomplish the task. Andrés said WCK is “still working” on donations to cover all the costs.
But on Thursday, WCK scaled down its operations in Puerto Rico, almost a month to the day after Andrés first arrived on Sept. 25. The organization and its partners will continue to operate satellite kitchens to feed the most vulnerable communities, including in the municipalities of Ponce, Vieques, Humacao and Naguabo. As of Friday, according to StatusPR, more than 70 percent of the island still remains in the dark, although 89 percent of the supermarkets have reopened.
Back in Washington, Andrés looks tired but says he suffered only one significant accident during his time in Puerto Rico. He was carrying a tray of wild rice and beans at the time.
“I fell in this river,” he recalled. “But the rice never touched the water. I was underwater.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that 89 percent of Puerto Rico’s supermarkets have not reopened. In fact, 89 percent have reopened. This version has been corrected.