Update: 9/4/2019, 11:45 a.m.: This story was originally published November 10, 2017. It has been updated throughout to reflect the latest information.
Nearly two years since José Andrés’s nonprofit World Central Kitchen made headlines for its efforts in Puerto Rico, it’s on the ground leading disaster relief in the Bahamas. Andrés and other members of the World Central Kitchen team landed in Nassau days before Hurricane Dorian made landfall on September 1 as a category 5 storm, the second most powerful Atlantic storm ever recorded. Since then, WCK has provided regular updates that cover their efforts to feed those affected and provide a window into the “catastrophic damage” Dorian left behind.
This isn’t the first time the nonprofit has exceeded its mission to provide meals in the wake of natural disasters. This past winter, the nonprofit that aims to change the world “through the eyes of a chef” began feeding furloughed workers during President Donald Trump’s record-setting partial government shutdown, going beyond the traditional definition of disaster relief.
World Central Kitchen’s work in Puerto Rico, where it served more than 3.6 million meals, brought it into public consciousness, but the nonprofit’s work started years before Hurricane Maria. Here’s the backstory on the chef-led organization that almost single-handedly fed Puerto Rico, and may end up doing the same in the Bahamas.
World Central Kitchen’s origin story
Andrés was inspired to found World Central Kitchen in 2010. After a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Haiti that year, the chef traveled to the country to work with other nonprofit organizations to install clean cookstoves in the region. In 2011, he joined the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a UN foundation launched in 2010 by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as culinary ambassador. In an announcement of his new role he said that he “went to Haiti to assist in humanitarian relief efforts, and saw that the grinding poverty they live with day-to-day had been exacerbated by dirty cooking conditions in overcrowded and unsafe tent cities.” While in Haiti, he also fell in love with country and, naturally, wanted to do more.
At the time, Andrés was chairman of the hunger-fighting nonprofit DC Central Kitchen and on the boards at some other NGOs, but he didn’t see what he was looking for in the international development world — essentially, “an organization that really focused on empowerment and not just feeding,” according to current World Central Kitchen executive director Brian MacNair. Andrés approached DC Central Kitchen with his idea for a new nonprofit. “He said, ‘Hey, I want to start my own organization called World Central Kitchen, tipping my hat to DC Central Kitchen. It’s an empowerment organization,’” MacNair says. “I didn’t think he’d do it.”
After it became clear that Andrés was in fact serious about creating an international empowerment nonprofit, MacNair came on in 2012. He helped streamline World Central Kitchen’s mission to focus on four distinct areas: education, health, jobs, and social enterprise. But unlike other organizations that offer global aid, World Central Kitchen would answer these needs with chefs. “There’s a lot of chefs that are doing good work, but an organization on the ground, kind of like a chefs’ network, didn’t exist and still doesn’t,” MacNair says.
How it works
In 2013, World Central Kitchen established its “chef network,” which now includes 140 professional chefs. The vision was for a kind of “chefs without borders” program where chefs would enact positive change, globally, using knowledge and resources related to their professions.
The majority of the organization’s work directly addresses either education, health, job creation, or social enterprise all over the world. It builds working kitchens in public schools to ensure children are eating in school, thus encouraging them to go. The organization promotes health by teaching food safety and installing clean cookstoves. And to create jobs, World Central Kitchen establishes culinary schools, which also boost the hospitality industry and stimulate the economy in the areas where it is active — starting with Haiti.
World Central Kitchen in Haiti
World Central Kitchen started with Haiti, where most of the nonprofit’s activity still takes place today. There are currently five active, ongoing initiatives in the country, according to MacNair, including a culinary school in Port-au-Prince, a bakery and restaurant in Croix-des-Bouquets that generate revenue for an orphanage, and “Haiti Breathes,” a campaign to convert Haiti’s school kitchens from using solid fuels to liquid petroleum gas to promote cleaner air.
In 2016, World Central Kitchen converted 50 school kitchens to propane stoves as part of Haiti Breathes and set out to build 40 new school kitchens by 2019, according to its annual report.
The organization also engaged in social enterprise initiatives. For example, in Jacmel, it invested in a fish processing plant to increase the salaries of the families that work there.
World Central Kitchen Across the Globe
In addition to Haiti, World Central Kitchen has operated in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Zambia, Peru, Cuba, Uganda, Cambodia, and elsewhere. According to MacNair, the group responds to requests from nonprofits and government organizations to build school kitchens and conduct sanitation training, but it also supports smaller projects in line with its four goals on a case-by-case basis.
World Central Kitchen helps a group of women in the Dominican Republic market the honey that they harvest. In Nicaragua, it invested in a coffee roasting facility and works with fellow empowerment organization Fabretto to renovate school kitchens.
Disaster and hurricane relief
In October 2016, when Hurricane Matthew hit Haiti, killing more than 900 people, World Central Kitchen was on the ground and distributed 15,000 meals from a mobile kitchen. This marked the beginning of the organization’s disaster relief efforts.
In August 2017, Andrés flew to Houston to feed people after Hurricane Harvey flooded the city. There, World Central Kitchen mobilized food donations and activated its network of chefs to feed people in need of support. But, it wasn’t until Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico that fall that disaster relief became the fifth part of World Central Kitchen’s official mission.
As with Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Andrés flew to Puerto Rico days after Hurricane Maria made landfall. Andrés and his network of chefs, which he acknowledged on Twitter with #ChefsForPuertoRico, established kitchens across the island, and the visibility of these efforts allowed World Central Kitchen to secure donations and private funding, crucial to feeding people left without food, clean water, and electricity. Although World Central Kitchen fulfilled a FEMA contract in Puerto Rico, it’s this private funding that will allow the group to feed people through Thanksgiving.
“Puerto Rico just took us by storm,” MacNair says. “We grew 500 percent as an organization overnight.” World Central Kitchen is currently in the process of hiring staff to focus solely on disaster relief “because, clearly, we are chef relief now. We are disaster relief now,” MacNair adds.
This new focus on disaster relief means that there will be more opportunities for World Central Kitchen’s 140 chef volunteers to help out on the ground. Between 20 and 30 chefs from the network flew to Puerto Rico, according to MacNair, and he’s already thinking about how World Central Kitchen can be effective for the next natural disaster: “We're packaging up exactly what we learned from Puerto Rico, and we will staff accordingly and be ready for the next hurricane season.”
In the time since World Central Kitchen pared down its efforts in Puerto Rico, it responded to natural disasters in Indonesia, Guatemala, and California, and the nonprofit has also started to react to crises that are more manmade in nature: Late last year, World Central Kitchen started feeding refugees in Tijuana, Mexico, and on January 16, it opened a pop-up kitchen in D.C. to provide free meals to U.S. government employees who went without paychecks during the partial government shutdown began December 22, 2018.
The nonprofit’s response to the shutdown, which World Central Kitchen dubbed #ChefsForFeds, isn’t ending there. In a video posted to Twitter January 19, Andrés announced that World Central Kitchen would expand to serve furloughed workers nationwide. “We believe this is a national food emergency and we will be there for the American federal workers,” he said. And on January 21, Andrés announced that World Central Kitchen would also establish a resource center in D.C. to provide supplies like groceries, diapers, and pet food.
“This is our action to make sure nobody will be hungry,” Andrés said in the January 19 video. “President Trump, what are you doing about it?”
World Central Kitchen and Hurricane Dorian
The World Central Kitchen team is consistently stationed at locations around the globe. In recent months, they’ve served 130,000 meals to refugees in Venezuela and 365,000 meals to victims of Cyclone Idai in Mozambique. Andrés isn’t always the face of these efforts, but soon after forecasts predicted that Hurricane Dorian would have devastating effects in the Bahamas, Andrés announced that he would be heading there to lead his nonprofit’s disaster relief work.
In the days since, Andrés and his team have flown to the Bahamas’s hard-hit northern islands to deliver food from their headquarters in Nassau. Their plan is to eventually set up kitchens at mapped locations, but in the meantime the team is making thousands of sandwiches to distribute to areas that no longer have grocery stores standing. As they’ve done for past disasters, the World Central Kitchen Twitter feed and Andrés’s personal Twitter have provided reliable updates on the situation on the ground.
Already, WCK has delivered thousands of sandwiches via helicopter, and a ship carrying 20,000 more meals is on its way. “The most important is not to cook, but food distribution,” Andrés told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
Reporting in after a long day on Abaco and visiting Green Turtle Cay, where all 550 people survived! We @WCKitchen brought hot meals and heard incredible stories....They need a few things, but otherwise are okay!! #ChefsForBahamas pic.twitter.com/sqrPmEbYmx— José Andrés (@chefjoseandres) September 5, 2019
Hurricane Dorian is still active, and as the storm approaches the Carolinas, World Central Kitchen is in place and ready to mobilize.
Monica Burton is the associate restaurant editor at Eater.