Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Maggie Kohn headshot

For Chef José Andrés, It’s More than Feeding the Hungry: It’s Building Food Resiliency

For José Andrés and World Central Kitchen, the front lines are disaster-ravaged communities in need of a hot meal; but long-term, his focus is on resilience.
By Maggie Kohn
José Andrés

World-renowned chef and humanitarian José Andrés is tired of speaking at conferences. He is tired of the applause. He says it is time to stop; to stop meeting at conferences in New York and London, and time to start the real battle to make the world a better place by going to the front lines where help is needed.

For Andrés, the front lines are disaster-ravaged communities and refugee camps in need of a hot meal.

For 10 years, Andrés has split his time between his more than 30 award-winning restaurants in Washington, Miami and Los Angeles, and his work with World Central Kitchen (WCK). He started the non-profit with his wife, Patricia, to change the world through the power of food. His recipe: Leverage smart solutions in the wake of natural and man-made disasters to end hunger and poverty and, in the process, empower communities and strengthen economies.

“Our mission is simple: When people are hungry, we feed them. We need to be on the front lines where they are,” Andrés told a packed auditorium at last month’s Social Good Summit during UN Climate Week in New York. “The urgency of now is now, not a week from now, not a month from now, but now.”

In the past decade, through a small full-team team and thousands of volunteers, WCK has served more than 8 million meals through 23 deployments and more than 44,000 volunteer shifts. This has included 3.7 million meals after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, where the Coliseo arena became the biggest “restaurant” in the world, says Andrés, serving 75,000 people per day. WCK also provided over 350,000 meals after Cyclone Idai in Mozambique earlier this year, more than 570,000 and counting meals for Venezuelan refugees in Colombia, and 100,000 meals to Federal employees in Washington, D.C., during the government shutdown. In fact, WCK teams have been cooking every single day since September 2017.

WCK considers itself a first responder, leveraging local resources to adapt in real time. “As cooks, we love to feed people,” Andrés explained at the Summit. “In disaster situations, we have to feed the many. If we don’t have a kitchen, we make a field kitchen. We don’t wait for the perfect kitchen. When you wait, people go hungry.”

Their food, he says, is always fresh, never pre-packaged, and made with locally sourced proteins and vegetables. And, when possible, served with recyclable plates and cutlery.

Next up for WCK: A chef relief training program that will certify culinary professionals in WCK’s methodology of emergency food response.

Building food resiliency

In the wake of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, Andrés realized more was needed to solve the problem of hunger and nutrition than providing food in the immediate aftermath. The island needed to build food resiliency and security in the face of future disasters, especially important given that at the time it imported 85 percent of its food.

Based on the results of an agricultural assessment of Puerto Rico, WCK and local experts determined that the best way to continue “feeding an island” was by supporting Puerto Rico’s smallholder farmers. In 2018, WCK launched its Plow to Plate program to help farmers revitalize their operations and begin to regrow their long-term capacity for food production, distribution and sales. The program provides funding, training and networking opportunities to both smallholder farmers and businesses that support local agriculture.

Abner Santiago, an agro-ecological farmer featured on WCK’s website, used Plow to Plate funding to build an off-grid walk-in cooler, rebuild greenhouses and purchase tools and implements that have brought his food production levels back up 110 percent from the hurricane.

And more than 30 of the 55 projects supported by Plow to Plate are women-led or co-led, like La MicroFinca, a farm led by Tadilka Rivera. Tadilka built a cold-storage unit with help from WCK where she can now store her greens, peppers and root crops to sell at farmers’ markets and restaurants.

WCK is now working to expand Plow to Plate to other countries.

In Haiti, WCK has worked for nearly five years with the Haitian Department of Education to prepare aspiring chefs for careers in local restaurants and hotels. The initiative offers a five-month culinary arts training program in the École des Chef culinary school in Port-au-Prince, which opened in 2017. Today, it is the country’s premier culinary school with more than 40 graduates annually. Upon graduation, students are placed in culinary internships, with the majority turning into full-time jobs.

Fulfilling a mission

Andrés explains on his website that his restaurants “serve the few in the developed world that have access to such luxuries, but we are always looking towards how we can contribute to feeding the many via innovation and education.” 

And contribute he has since he arrived in New York City at the age for 21 from his native Spain with only $50 and a mission to change the world through the power of food.

As he encouraged the audience at the Social Good Summit to take action, he quoted from author John Steinbeck: “Wherever there is a fight so that hungry people may eat, we will be there.”

Don’t forget: Later this month, we’ll be hosting 3BL Forum: Brands Taking Stands – What's Next, October 29-30, at MGM National Harbor, just outside Washington, D.C. On the afternoon of the 30th, Alexandra Garcia, Chief Program Officer of World Central Kitchen, will share what companies can do to demonstrate commitments far beyond making bold statements.

We're pleased to offer 3p readers a 25 percent discount on attending the Forum. Please register by going to the 3BL Forum website and use this discount code when prompted: NEWS2019BRANDS.

Image credit: World Central Kitchen

Maggie Kohn headshot

Maggie Kohn is excited to be a contributor to Triple Pundit to illustrate how business can achieve positive change in the world while supporting long-term growth. Maggie worked for more than 20 years at the biopharma giant Merck & Co., Inc., leading corporate responsibility and social business initiatives. She currently writes, speaks and consults on corporate responsibility and social impact when she is not busy fostering kittens for her local animal shelter. Click here to learn more.

Read more stories by Maggie Kohn