One month into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization warned of impending food shortages across the country.
Speaking to the number of people who may currently be starving in the country, David Beasley, executive director of the U.N.’s World Food Programme, told CBS News in the beginning of May, “You gotta assume that millions are at stake right now. We're reaching about 2 million already. We hope to scale up to 4 million in the weeks ahead and 6 million beyond that.”
In a situation of such great need, World Central Kitchen (WCK) has deployed hot meals, grocery kits, shelf-stable packs and meal vouchers, to name a few examples meeting the needs of the people of Ukraine who have either fled the country or for whatever reasons have had to stay put. The relief organization began its involvement exactly one day following the invasion on February 24. Since then, it has delivered 25 million meals to Ukrainians, becoming, as WCK recently announced in a blog post, “the largest food relief operation in Ukraine.”
“It's a very simple thing when you're a cook. When you're hungry, you gather the food, you gather your helpers, you begin cooking, and then you start feeding people,” Founder of WCK Chef José Andrés told CBS News’ 60 Minutes in 2018. Others may not categorize WCK’s success as simple, but the approach does have an elegance that incites quick and effective action in disaster and conflict zones.
The organization started in 2010 from the sensible idea to send cooks out to feed the world’s hungry. Andrés took $10,000 and whatever his credit cards could hold to bring his wife’s idea to life, he told 60 Minutes. His operation has grown to the extent that it is now featured in a National Geographic documentary directed by Ron Howard called We Feed People.
“Find the kitchens, and you’ll find somebody in the kitchen that wants to join the simple idea of feeding others,” Chef Andrés explains in a new video put out by his organization. He added that you can empower a restaurant to do more than it thinks is possible. If it’s currently making 50 meals, it can make 500.
Wherever WCK launches an operation, it comes with celerity, as Venezuelan refugees and American schoolchildren can attest. The experience in Ukraine has been no different.
To that end, WCK illustrated its growth in its aforementioned blog post. The team first launched on the Poland-Ukraine border and quickly scaled up to all border crossings in neighboring countries, operating 24/7 at each location. As it scaled at the borders, the organization was also speaking with chefs that remained in the country. Word and willingness spread, with the help of a hashtag (#ChefsforUkraine), and hundreds of Ukrainian kitchens are now preparing hundreds of thousands of fresh meals every day, the organization reports.
WCK says it has now established dozens of warehouses spanning the country and is currently reaching more than 230 cities and towns, with over 4,300 team members (what the organization calls “food fighters”) working on the front lines — cooking, stocking, delivering meals, driving trucks and feeding areas that have been hit as soon as it’s safe to do so.
The scale of operations that has been set up within mere months is staggering. WCK reports it has set up a central warehouse in Warsaw, where trucks pick up millions of pounds of food to distribute throughout the country. Warehouses in Lviv feed a cargo railway hub. Each day, wagons are filled with food and dispatched across the country.
The nonprofit is also expanding a meal voucher program that started in Lviv. Using their vouchers, individuals can purchase any meal they desire at any time at a local cafeteria. WCK sees this program as not only empowering families, but also stimulating the local economy.
In places that were previously under Russian occupation, ingredients have been hard to come by, WCK says. In those and other places, the organization has been giving grocery kits — 30 pounds of products each, such as flour, pasta, cheese, produce and canned meats. They’ve distributed nearly 11 million pounds of these kits thus far. WCK’s blog post quotes the Kyiv warehouse manager, Tatiana: “I hear stories of survival and how vital the food bags are, they’re lifelines.”
The type of widespread and intimate impact WCK is making becomes clear story after story…and there are many more stories. In eastern Ukraine’s Kramatorsk, rockets left a complex that houses many seniors without power and water. WCK’s Relief Team swooped in to bandage the injured and bring fresh, restaurant-prepared meals to their doors.
Clearly, WCK’s accolades, awards and worldwide respect are hard-won. Andrés concludes WCK’s recent video with, “We’re going to win, because no one’s going to be breaking our spirits.” That’s the sort of fighting everyone can get behind, because, really, when WCK wins, everyone wins.
Image credit: World Central Kitchen/Facebook
Roya Sabri is a writer and graphic designer based in Illinois. She writes about the circular economy, advancements in CSR, the environment and equity. As a freelancer, she has worked on communications for nonprofits and multinational organizations. Find her on LinkedIn.