When a disaster strike, World Central Kitchen (WCK) is often the first organization helping on the ground. Its CEO, Nate Mook, discusses Chef José Andrés’ vision for WCK, how it mobilizes for such situations, and what a hot meal means to those in crisis.
What was the inspiration for World Central Kitchen?
Chef José Andrés didn’t have a preconceived notion of what the organization would be. However, his core principle was that food should be seen as both a solution and an opportunity. José wanted to learn how he, as a chef and businessperson, could bring his expertise to the table.
WCK was founded in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, so there was a disaster response impetus. In those early days, José learned where the needs and gaps were and where things could be improved. He also felt that the people who know food best often weren’t part of the solution. Who do you send to medical crises? Doctors and nurses. And yet, for food crises, culinary experts weren’t being utilized.
For example, the United States sent a huge amount of rice to Haiti. is seemed great, but it destroyed the local market. Haitian rice farmers couldn’t compete with the free rice flooding in, which caused long-term damage.
Does the mission go beyond feeding people?
WCK runs the gamut of food issues, from access to healthy and nutritious food to food safety. José saw people cooking with dirty fuels like charcoal, holding their children while cooking, and inhaling toxic fumes. So one of the tenets became working within communities and leveraging what’s already there to find solutions around food.
What happens after an initial crisis dies down?
It depends on timelines. During an emergency response, you make sure to get food to those who need it. When things start to stabilize, there are sometimes ongoing needs, such as in Guatemala and Honduras, which were hit by two major hurricanes in 2020 that caused tremendous damage. We provided food for displaced people, but after the immediate emergency faded, we saw the longer-term impact of those storms. Families lost their crops, so they didn’t have any income and couldn’t grow anything to eat themselves. As part of our recovery program, we helped these communities get on their feet by providing food kits so families could cook. This type of assistance usually lasts from three months to a year after a disaster has taken place. Finally, there’s our resilience program, a long-term option that started in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. ere was such little food in Puerto Rico because the country imported 90 percent of it. So we launched our Food Producer Network there in 2018, which helps people do more self-sustaining agriculture work
How do you go about planning so quickly?
It’s critical for us to get to a location as soon as we can, and if we can plan for a catastrophe, we’ll try to set up beforehand. When Hurricane Ida hit Louisiana, we already had a big team on the ground and a kitchen cooking in New Orleans. We have equipment stored in various warehouses and high-capacity food trucks that we can deploy very quickly.
We also leverage what’s already there. Communities almost always have restaurants, and if they’re still functional, we can pay the restaurants to produce meals. is has a double impact because we’re not only getting meals to folks in need but also supporting local businesses during a trying time. For example, in 2020, we paid restaurants in four hundred cities across America to produce meals during COVID. We had hoped to put $10 million back into small restaurants by doing this, but by the end of the year, the number was $150 million.
Does the culinary world come together when a disaster hits?
One of the magical things about the culinary industry is its strong its strong interconnectedness. With a simple phone call, people jump in and help. They know their community better than anyone else, have distributors and suppliers for food, and potentially have kitchen space and staff to utilize, so we’ll come in and work side by side with them. Chefs are also very good at operating in turmoil—restaurant kitchens are controlled chaos, so chefs must be good under pressure, move fast, and adapt.
Is there an element of danger in what you do?
That’s a great question. We factor that in, and everybody we employ is trained. But there will always be uncontrolled situations. During the earthquake in Haiti, for example, we had to be very careful about our teams’ safety, not only because there could be additional earthquakes but also because of the political instability. Gangs would often shut down roads, so we had to use helicopters and planes to get food to many places.
The safety of our teams is our number one priority. If it’s too dangerous, we won’t go in. For hurricanes, we make sure that we are hunkered down in secure locations that are hurricane-rated and have backup generators. We also have satellite phones and trackers. Nonetheless, there will always be an element of danger.
That includes COVID. None of us have contracted it during a relief operation, which is a testament to how careful we are. In spring 2020, we were extensively supporting families on the Navajo Nation which had the highest rate of COVID in the world at the time. It was a big challenge, but that work needed to be done.
Is social media vital to your mission?
We are often the first people on the ground—and sometimes the only ones. So if we’re not sharing what the circumstances are, nobody is. We become the eyes and ears of the general public when a disaster strikes. I also think it’s important to be radically transparent. If you donate, we want you to see exactly how we’re spending your money and foster trust because WCK is a people-powered organization. If we didn’t have that support, we wouldn’t be able to do the work we do every single day.
How does providing hot meals impact people?
We’re big believers that a hot, fresh-cooked meal is more than just what’s on the plate. It says that somebody is here to support you and cares about you. That hot plate of food during a time of crisis is a message of hope. At the end of the day, that’s what’s so important about what we do.
How much has World Central Kitchen’s mission grown, and how will it continue to do so?
We have had three phases. The initial phase was when José founded the organization and learned what was needed. In phase two, after Hurricane Maria, we applied that learning and created our model for disaster response. COVID has led to the third version of World Central Kitchen. We’ve shown that we can scale and operate with a massive reach—in 2020, we served over thirty-five million meals in the United States during the pandemic and got food to people in hundreds of cities simultaneously.
Going forward, we’re engaging in policy and legislation and targeting the systemic issues that lead to food insecurity because the communities most impacted by disasters are often the most vulnerable. The fact that food touches everything, such as schools feeding children, has been a big wakeup call during the pandemic. We also need to do everything possible to ensure that we’re ready to respond soon after an emergency strikes so we can meet people’s needs immediately.
For more information, visit wck.org