In past years, natural disasters brought presidents to devastated communities. It wasn't just considered politically correct for the country's leader to turn up and show his support for homeless victims of a hurricane, tornado, fire or flood. It signaled action. It urged sympathy and it prompted communities across the country to reach out.
"A visit from the president shines a light on the situation,” acknowledged an official of the George W Bush administration, Andrew Card. “He brings the national media. He brings attention. Americans are great at responding to a tragedy if they know about it.”
Former President Barack Obama touched down in Baton Rouge in 2016 after what was then the worst natural disaster of the decade. Bill Clinton was quick to show his support in North Carolina after Hurricane Floyd in 1999. Richard Nixon made his support known in Mississippi in 1969 after Camille ravaged the state. The tradition goes back as far as 1927 when Calvin Coolidge was nudged by Mississippi's governor to turn up and show federal support for flood victims.
But these days although presidential visits do seem to expedite federal dollars for aid, it's the gesture of the unexpected guest that can quickly marshal community resources that gets the spotlight.
Just days after Hurricane Maria bulldozed her way across Puerto Rico, renowned chef José Andrés and his crew from World Central Kitchen landed in the devastated city of San Juan and were handing out hot meals. Paella big enough to feed hundreds, sanocho, pastelon and other Puerto Rican favorites have made their way "to every corner" (Spanish) that can be reached in Puerto Rico. As of October 1, barely a week after two kitchens were set up on the island, more than 15,000 meals had been served, courtesy of local chefs, who donated their kitchens, local volunteers and food trucks.
And they haven't just been dishing out food. The team from World Central Kitchen (WCK), which includes chefs from across the globe are quickly becoming the face of disaster relief. After Haiti was devastated by earthquake, Andres realized that chefs with the talents and skills to adapt dishes to the local cuisine were what was needed to mobilize crews in disaster zones. A good hot meal doesn't just provide energy. It renews morale and incentivizes action.
Since that time, WCK has become a kind of melting pot of social action, with projects that address education, health and social enterprise in countries as far away as Zambia, Peru, Haiti and Brazil. Natural disasters help distill the urgent message of social action. But WCK's mission to overcome poverty in disadvantaged communities goes much further.
In Puerto Rico, Andres and his team set up a makeshift headquarters of tents, self-refrigerating trucks and camping stoves in the town of Santurche. They aim to turn out about a thousand meals per operation, "if God allows us, about 8,000 meals today [and] about 100,000 by Sunday," Andres said confidently.
Of course, Andres isn't just trying to mobilize Puerto Rico and the communities stateside. He's sending a message to President Trump and likely, the presidents of the future: You can do this, too.
On Sunday, Andres tweeted a list of helpful tips to Trump. They include emergency coping mechanisms that some of the hardest-hit communities have learned through adversity. The first: Harness your food trucks. The second: Thousands of rewarded volunteers can do the work of millions.
If I was.@realDonaldTrump I would activate every Food truck in the country,create blocks of 10,centralize kitchen, 20k meals a day per block pic.twitter.com/ChShkup7Mq
— José Andrés (@chefjoseandres) October 1, 2017
If I was .@realDonaldTrump I will praise in a tweet the thousands of volunteers organizing on their own to contribute to the efforts pic.twitter.com/tuluT8hLDC
— José Andrés (@chefjoseandres) October 1, 2017
Unfortunately, the lessons may come too late for Trump, whose late arrival will likely have spared him from seeing the raw misery addressed by NGOs and other organizations like WCK. In addition to Andres, there has been an army of celebrities and politicians who have moved quickly to fill the aid gap and are now assisting on ground.
In today's fast-pace world it would seem, it's the innovators with local connections and the professional skills to quickly assess the needs of thousands who can motivate action. And nothing, it seems, works as well in inspiring compassion to others than the need for a hot, well-prepared meal.
Images: World Central Kitchen
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.