Two New York City groups have cut ties with World Central Kitchen, the nonprofit founded by chef and Nobel Peace Prize nominee José Andrés, after learning that the humanitarian organization has occasionally benefited from law enforcement agencies that have been accused of brutality against African Americans or inhumane treatment of undocumented immigrants. The groups also accused the organization of aligning itself with gentrifiers in the fast-emerging South Bronx neighborhood where WCK is feeding vulnerable residents, the very ones who could be displaced by gentrification.
La Morada, an Oaxacan restaurant in the South Bronx, left WCK’s Restaurants for the People relief program on May 8, posting its reasons for the split days later on its website and social media accounts. Last week, the North Bronx Collective — which describes itself as a mutual-aid group led by queer, black and indigenous people, people of color and women — aired its grievances with WCK in a public post on Medium. The groups say that by allowing officers with Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) to distribute food in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017, using members of the New York Police Department to deliver meals during the pandemic and working with developers and gentrifiers who they say are aligned with President Trump and his agenda, WCK is supporting a system of discrimination and injustice against immigrants and people of color.
“It wasn’t until a lot of activist friends from various parts of the world, and also from Queens, reached out to us and told us that World Central Kitchen worked very closely with ICE in Puerto Rico that it really raised the red flag,” Yajaira Saavedra, a second-generation owner of La Morada, told The Washington Post. “It was actually the final straw for us to end our relationship with them.” Saavedra is also an activist and organizer who fights for the rights of undocumented people in the United States, including some members of her family who run the restaurant in South Bronx.
Saavedra was referring to WCK’s work in Puerto Rico after the devastating hurricane, which wiped out the power grid and numerous roads, making parts of the island almost impossible to reach for small relief organizations. Some HSI agents who learned about WCK’s work feeding people in Puerto Rico said they could help distribute sandwiches in their vehicles. “They said we could bring food, so we began giving them food,” Andrés told The Post in 2017. “They began taking thousands of sandwiches.”
Nate Mook, chief executive of WCK, calls the ICE allegation a “purposeful mischaracterization of the situation” in Puerto Rico, one designed to “create conflict.” HSI is an investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security and falls under the organizational umbrella of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, which conducts deportation raids and has been accused of mistreating immigrants in detention centers. But after the hurricane, HSI was working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to conduct wellness checks in hard-hit areas, Mook said, and not in any other capacity.
“We in no way support or condone or have any relationship [with ICE], but when taken out of context, I think the situation in Puerto Rico was purposely misconstrued to claim that World Central Kitchen had some sort of relationship with ICE,” Mook said.
Mook added that WCK has never collaborated with police agencies. Some of the groups that WCK supports may have existing relationships with law enforcement, and officers may sometimes assist in meal deliveries. This was apparently the case in New York, where the city’s public housing authority works with the police department. “If the NYPD was involved in distributing the food, it was through local community partners,” Mook said. In the weeks since George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis police, hundreds of protesters have filed complaints against NYPD officers alleging excessive force. An NYPD officer was recently suspended for placing a black man in a chokehold just days after the city and state passed laws banning the practice.
WCK has posted a statement on its website in response to La Morada’s allegations, disputing them point by point, including charges that the organization withheld personal protection equipment from front-line restaurant workers and that it paid barely enough money per meal to cover the cost of ingredients.
WCK’s public statements have not satisfied the owners of La Morada or, the North Bronx Collective, at a time when Americans are calling for abolishing ICE and defunding the police. Alicia Grullon, an organizer for the North Bronx Collective texted to say that “not working with ICE is not enough.” The group remains upset with WCK’s efforts to feed furloughed federal workers last year during the partial government shutdown. “Again, would José Andrés have fed Franco’s soldiers and police?” Grullon said, echoing a question in the collective’s Medium essay.
“I feel really upset at how World Central Kitchen has aligned themselves and not held themselves accountable for playing a part in all the gentrification and in all the mistreatment of the black and brown community,” Saavedra told The Post. She said that WCK works with a number of restaurants in the gentrified part of South Bronx.
The North Bronx Collective wrote in its Medium post: “We see WCK’s position as an NGO as part of the problem as they capitalize on tragedy without critical analysis of what they are doing. As such, they inevitably become instruments of capital domination where even caring becomes a profitable business.”
La Morada and the North Bronx Collective believe in mutual aid, the principle of volunteering to share your resources and services for the mutual benefit of all. They do not think WCK’s work falls under the definition.
“It’s not mutual aid when you have a lot more to give and you hold back, especially with some people who need it the most,” Saavedra said. Mutual aid is giving “without receiving any glory from it,” she added. “Once you start asking for glory and recognition, that’s charity work. That’s vanity.”
Saavedra said she has not seen Andrés taking part in any acts of civil disobedience on behalf of undocumented people, nor has she seen him denounce politicians other than Trump. (Trump and Andrés sued each other after the chef reneged on his plan to operate a restaurant in the Trump International Hotel in Washington. Andrés pulled out of the hotel after Trump made racist comments on the campaign trial about Mexicans. The parties settled out of court in 2017.)
Andrés has championed issues and aligned his company, ThinkFoodGroup, with developments that have come under criticism. He campaigned against Initiative 77 in the District, which would have phased out the tipped minimum wage and helped ease poverty among the city’s lowest-paid workers, advocates said at the time. (The initiative passed but was later repealed by the D.C. Council.) The chef also has a sprawling Spanish market inside Hudson Yards, a $25 billion project on the West Side of Manhattan that was partially financed through a program originally designed to combat urban poverty.
Andrés is in his native Spain, where WCK has set up relief kitchens, and could not be reached for comment. But Andrés, a naturalized U.S. citizen, has used his sizable platform to raise awareness about the temporary protected status of Salvadoran immigrants, to teach Americans about the important roles immigrants are playing in the coronavirus response and to show what the world of business would look like without immigrants.
“To think that José Andrés would somehow be anti-immigrant and anti-undocumented is unfathomable because it’s in the core of his being,” Mook said. “He fights for rights for immigrants and pushes for rights for undocumented individuals and families in this country. He got into a very public fight with the president and got sued over it because of the comments that the president made.”
The whole point of the Restaurants for the People campaign, Mook said, is to keep money in local restaurants, not in the hands of developers and large chains. The program pays restaurants a fee for each meal they produce, and then WCK coordinates with local authorities and companies to distribute those meals to the most vulnerable populations. Mook said that WCK works with 150 restaurants in New York and has served 7 million meals in the metro area.
Mook said he has no hard feelings that either group bowed out of the program. Nor does he think it’s his job to get everyone to like Andrés, the face of World Central Kitchen.
“The real question is, how much of this is sort of being leveraged for attention?” Mook said. “We live in a world where it’s about attention. Our president knows attention the best, and that’s why the media buys into all of this and they give it to him.”
“At the end of the day, we don’t want to get into the personal, and I know José doesn’t, either,” Mook added. “It’s about the work. It’s not about us.”
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