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Responding to Crisis: Learning from World Central Kitchen

Roya Sabri headshotWords by Roya Sabri
Community Engagement
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Last month, World Central Kitchen (WCK) launched yet another humanitarian effort, this time in Venezuela. The goal: feeding citizens who have been going hungry, a crisis exacerbated when Venezuela and Colombia closed their border crossings after trucks hauling relief supplies were set ablaze while attempting to cross a bridge linking the neighboring countries. Once again, WCK showcased its agility as it tackled yet another crisis by viewing it through the lens of a chef.

This approach is one of the many reasons WCK, now almost a decade old, has become Chef José Andrés’s key passion, one that has proven its effectiveness at helping people. When Andrés sees people suffering due to natural disasters or political crises, he has shown repeatedly that he is quick at getting teams cooking—passionately and humanely.

The question is: How can companies that want to do good, and do it well, learn from WCK?

Always keep your vision in mind

We can find the answers in a few basic principles by which WCK abides. The first is having a vision. For WCK, that vision comes from Andrés, who began as a chef, one who loves food and has a passion about what it can offer people and cultures.

Andrés’s career developed on the cutting edge of molecular gastronomy—applying and experimenting with the physics and chemistry of cooking—but he always remained concerned about the larger picture of food in America and around the world. Only a few weeks after he arrived in Washington, D.C., he began volunteering at the D.C. Central Kitchen, where he helped prepare food for hungry neighbors and mentored cooks. He has since served on the nonprofit’s board and is now one of its chair emeriti. Over the past several years, Andrés has won countless awards, including the 3BL Forum ‘Brands Taking Stands' 2018 Humanitarian of the Year award last fall; a U.S. congressman has since nominated him for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.

One result of this passion is that now Andrés is in the news more for his humanitarian relief accomplishments than the dishes in his restaurants. “Chefs of America, we should be more outspoken about the way we are feeding America . . . We should be more committed about the other 97 percent of Americans that don’t come to our restaurants,” Andrés told Anderson Cooper during a 2017 interview on "60 Minutes."

WCK’s success is inextricable from its vision, which helps to keep it moving and ready for the next humanitarian crisis. If your company is interested in helping support humanitarian efforts, ask yourself: What are the higher principles behind your work? Keeping those principles in mind can do much to inspire community service while building coalitions on the ground.

Find your niche and adapt it to various contexts

A good place to start measuring the effectiveness of any humanitarian aid program is with the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development)—the intergovernmental organization tasked with stimulating economic progress and world trade. The OECD published a paper in 2014 on the characteristics and practices of effective humanitarian aid. Andrés’s WCK checks off many of this report’s boxes, but, more importantly, the group already achieves what the report outlines as future aspirations.

Finding your own way to respond is one of these most important goals. Next, an organization must be able to adapt to different situations, locations and peoples. WCK is a perfect case study of both how to develop a response as well as how to shift focus quickly when necessary.

WCK’s strength is its ability to bring leaders and volunteers together: The NGO’s resources are not food supplies and equipment, but chefs, kitchens and volunteers who are already on the ground. Time and time again, WCK's strength has been its ability to respond to the needs of specific locales—building relationships, teaching, creating local jobs and supporting social enterprise. “To a chef, the world is full of kitchens, each one an opportunity to get involved and feed people in need,” Andrés told TriplePundit in a 2018 interview. The organization’s local partnerships allow WCK to be flexible, adaptable and responsive all around the world.

For example, WCK cooked Thanksgiving dinner for people affected by California’s wildfires last year. As is the case with many of the organization’s relief efforts, WCK was in “rapid response” mode. In areas where wildfires upended lives, WCK began work in local kitchens soon after arriving in the Golden State, while partnering with California’s Office of Emergency Services, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, Operation BBQ Relief and another celebrity chef, Guy Fieri, to feed first responders and people temporarily housed in shelters.

In Venezuela, WCK’s work faced a different challenge: While those affected by California’s wildfires were often huddled in shelters after being evacuated, Venezuelans were fleeing their country, often because of hunger. WCK staff and volunteers first started their work by distributing bag lunches to shelters in Cúcuta, a city on the border of Venezuela and Colombia. During this process, the team was also learning from Venezuelans and experts in the region so they could plan next steps in the event the crises worsened—which ended up being the case. The result was a system where meals cooked in the Cúcuta kitchen were then delivered to shelters along the routes Venezuelan refugees were traveling in order to provide them sustenance.

Responding quickly and effectively requires being flexible

What is there to learn from WCK’s modus operandi? Helping people in dire need requires applying your expertise with flexibility while listening every step of the way. A one-size-fits-all approach can come across as heavy-handed, slow and ineffective. If your company is looking to assist with humanitarian aid in a region that needs immediate help, consider the lay of the land; what local organizations you’ll be partnering with; the local infrastructure you can use to carry out your work with locals, experts and volunteers; and who you’ll be listening to so your company can refine tactics and plan for the next steps.

With a problem as complex and time-sensitive as emergency humanitarian aid, it is important to start simple by learning about the problem on the ground and then plan from there. An intervention as small as handing out bag lunches can make a world of difference in the moment, but it is critical that your company first ensures that the capacity and solutions it has match the needs of the local population, whether that is feeding people on the go in Venezuela or helping locals celebrate a holiday in the midst of a disaster in California. And most of all, let your vision guide your actions.

Image credit: World Central Kitchen/Facebook

Roya Sabri headshotRoya Sabri

Roya is a writer and graphic designer based in Philadelphia, PA. She loves being involved in her community, helping to foster a healthy and happy environment. She is excited to write about innovations and ideas in corporate responsibility for TriplePundit. You can find her on LinkedIn

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