Story by Jane Black
Illustrations by Luis Mazón
Sam Bloch stepped off his flight in Tokyo on February 12, he found himself in a disaster zone unlike any he had seen. And he had seen a lot. Over the past 16 years, he’d witnessed whole fishing villages washed out to sea in Thailand, children buried in rubble in Haiti, refugees trooping through northern Greece. But in Tokyo, there were no flattened buildings. No crowds of people desperately seeking food or shelter. No downed power lines. Nothing, at least that he could see, was amiss.
In the nearby port of Yokohama, though, an invisible horror story was unfolding inside a cruise ship called the Diamond Princess. The novel coronavirus was racing unseen from the promenade shops and the 700-seat theater to the overflowing buffets in the Horizon Court dining room. Even after the nearly 2,700 passengers were confined to their cabins, crew members continued to bring meals, served on china plates, into guests’ rooms without donning fresh masks or gloves. For days, passengers anxiously watched as the sick were carried away in buses whose windows were shrouded with dark curtains. Ultimately, more than 700 passengers and crew tested positive for the virus, and at least 14 have died.
Bloch, a wiry 41-year-old with a scraggly beard and dreadlocks pulled back in a high ponytail, is the director of field operations for World Central Kitchen, a disaster relief organization founded by chef José Andrés that has upended the way the global community thinks about emergency feeding. Founded in 2010, WCK was built on the simple but powerful idea that it is possible to serve not just life-sustaining calories to people in times of crisis, but meals that actually taste good. Over the last decade, it has fed survivors of earthquakes in Indonesia, volcanic eruptions in Hawaii and Guatemala, forest fires in California and Australia, and hurricanes in Florida, North Carolina and the Bahamas. Andrés’ work in Puerto Rico, where WCK served 3.7 million meals in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017, led to his nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize.
“I’m not going to lie to you.
Some people think I’m Superman.
Though it would be a month before the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic, it was clear that WCK’s usual methods weren’t going to work in Yokohama. So Bloch and his four colleagues set to work devising a system with multiple firewalls. Cooks wore masks and gloves at all times, packaged each meal individually and had no contact with anyone near the ship. The food was driven 45 minutes to the port, reheated in trucks custom-fitted with high-end ovens, packed into boxes and loaded onto a forklift. As many as six times a day, Bloch donned an N95 mask and goggles, tucked his dreadlocks into a disposable hooded hazmat suit and drove the forklift 300 feet to the ship. When he returned, he’d be hosed down with disinfectant and peel off his suit, and the whole process would begin again. “There wasn’t a playbook for a non-Japanese cruise ship stuck in Japan with a high COVID rate,” Bloch told me. “There is now.”
Less than a month later, Bloch, joined by Andrés, put the playbook to work in Oakland, California. The Grand Princess, another contaminated cruise ship, was circling just off the coast waiting for permission to dock—the delay fueled by confusion and President Donald Trump’s desire to keep the more than 3,500 passengers and crew on board, lest they add to America’s already growing case count. “What went through my mind was, ‘Wow,’” Andrés recalled. “‘Let’s be ahead, let’s take care of those Americans and those foreigners to make sure we help them home.’ That’s what any leader would do.”
Andrés is 51 years old and has merry blue eyes and a white beard. He’s kinetic and avuncular, and often speaks so quickly that, in English at least, it’s as if his words are running a few beats behind his rapid-fire thoughts. Since the start of the pandemic, he’s appeared to be everywhere at once. In Washington, D.C., he delivered a truckload of thousands of N95 masks—extras from Yokohama—to local hospitals. From Corona, Queens, he implored members of Congress to do something about the long lines of people waiting for food. He lobbied lawmakers on Capitol Hill for disaster funding and did a town hall with Joe Biden about food insecurity. During the few times he was actually at home in Bethesda, Maryland, he made recipe videos to inspire fatigued home cooks. Andrés prepped migas, a classic Spanish dish made from stale bread. He made his mother’s lentil stew. And in a frenzied five minutes, 33 seconds—the length of the song “My Shot” from the musical “Hamilton”—he made a dish of fried rice, all while singing (badly), dancing (barefoot and enthusiastically),
and selling, Crazy Eddie-style, the virtues of
fresh vegetables and herbs. (The video was
viewed more than 620,000 times on Twitter.)
Thousands of restaurants have closed while millions of Americans go hungry. It took a celebrity-chef-turned-gonzo-humanitarian to do anything about it.
By the third week of March, Andrés realized the pandemic would dwarf anything WCK had seen before. Some 3.3 million Americans filed for unemployment that week. Few areas of the country were spared. WCK’s specialty, a centralized kitchen that turns out thousands of meals per day, was now a public health threat. So Andrés devised a new plan. All over the country, restaurants were facing collapse after being ordered to close. Why not get them to do the cooking? Laid-off workers would be paid. Some small businesses might be saved. The needy would be fed. If the government were to put money behind the program, Andrés argued in a March 22 op-ed in The New York Times, it could serve as a kind of 21st-century Works Progress Administration for the decimated hospitality industry.
As you may have noticed, the Trump administration did not create a 21st-century WPA. So, Andrés raised money from corporations, philanthropists and celebrities to establish what he grandly called the Restaurants for the People program. Over the next six months, WCK, which has 200 employees, reports it paid out nearly $110 million to 2,400 restaurants, which served more than 10 million meals in 350 cities in 35 states. In total, through partnerships and its own kitchens, WCK served more than 30 million meals.
By mid-June, during a period when just about everyone had decided never to get on a plane again, Andrés had been traveling for 14 straight weeks. When I spoke to him by phone he was in the southern city of Málaga, Spain, where his wife, Patricia, had insisted he take a break to regain some strength. “My wife is like, ‘Well, you go or I cut your credit cards.’ Which—she's got my credit cards. I don't even know my bank account,” he said.
“I'm not going to lie to you. I'm distraught,” he went on. “Some people think I'm Superman. I’m not Superman. I’m like everybody else, and this has been long and it’s been a mix of…” Andrés’ voice trembled and he trailed off.
It’s tempting to see Andrés and his mission as the feel-good antidote to the selfishness of Trumpism and the indifference of billionaires whose wealth has swelled grotesquely as the number of hungry Americans could soar to a record 54 million. But it is perhaps more accurate to view WCK’s operation as a direct result of the federal government’s spectacular failure to help its citizens cope with the economic fallout of the pandemic, and to patch holes in our so-called safety net. That a sizable number of Americans now depend on a celebrity-chef-turned-gonzo-humanitarian for food or even their livelihood is, when you think about it, both inspiring and more than a little insane.
Stadium sits on a gentrified bend of the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C. On game days, more than 40,000 fans crowd into the cavernous space, the air redolent with roasted peanuts and fried chicken strips. But when I visited in late June, it was eerily empty, a steady breeze whistling through the walkways and tunnels. Two months earlier, Andrés had cut a deal with the Nats to use the stadium to prepare meals for the District’s lowest-income communities in neighborhoods where there weren’t many restaurants to do the work for him.
Twenty cooks were spread across two of the stadium’s giant industrial kitchens, to allow for some measure of social distancing. One kitchen handled hot meals, the other the cold stuff. That day was a slow one by WCK standards: Cooks were “only” making 9,000 meals—chili, a reheatable chicken-and-chickpea coconut curry and piles of chicken-salad sandwiches. Jay Hills, who had been hired as a WCK contractor when his job cooking at a local charter school disappeared, offered me a sample of a beef-and-vegetable chili on a plastic spoon. It was surprisingly good, full of corn and peas with a subtle swirl of heat.
The operation, military in style and scale, was a long way from the high-end restaurant kitchens where Andrés made his name as one of the country’s most creative chefs. He was raised in northern Spain, where both his parents were nurses. But Andrés was not, as they say, a “traditional learner.” He dropped out of high school, went to culinary school in Barcelona, then spent his military service cooking in the navy. From there, he spent three years at the temple of modernist cuisine, El Bulli, until December 1990, when the chef fired him because he thought Andrés had stood him up for a meeting. (In fact, Andrés had only left the restaurant to make a phone call.)
It was, Andrés likes to say, his “favorite mistake.” A week later, at age 21, Andrés left for America. He cooked at a few places in New York City, then, in 1993, signed on as chef at a new tapas restaurant, Jaleo, in Washington, D.C. Back then, there was no restaurant “scene” to speak of in the nation’s capital—just a collection of steakhouses and stuffy French restaurants favored by overpaid lobbyists. Jaleo was a revelation. The food was light and fun; the atmosphere was raucous. One Jaleo turned into two, then three, and in the space of a decade Andrés and his partners added restaurants serving Mexican, pan-Latin and Middle Eastern food, as well as a six-seat temple to modernist cooking, where diners swallowed tiny rice cakes designed to make smoke come out of their noses. Along the way, Andrés became an A-list celebrity, with 28 restaurants, cookbooks, a TV show and his own line of Spanish ingredients.
A generation of chefs, from Anthony Bourdain to David Chang, has built empires on a combination of charisma and hard work. But even among this rarified set, Andrés stands out. “Relentless” is how everyone describes him—and he is. Whatever is on his mind at a given moment, he needs your mind to be on it too. When I was a reporter at The Washington Post, and Andrés was just another ambitious D.C. chef, he would call me at work. If I didn’t answer he would call my cell, then my home phone, until I relented. That energy never shuts off. In idle moments, his fingers tap; he bounces on his toes as if readying for takeoff. This may sound annoying, but it’s invigorating to get a hit of his stray voltage. "He's all over the place, but creatively,” his friend Seth Hurwitz told me at the time. “That's the difference between José and other people that have that kind of energy. With José, it ends in a result, not some pipe dream."
Even then, Andrés was clearly searching for a legacy more substantive than being the guy who brought small plates to America. He hosted salons with food-obsessed policy wonks like Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias, who went on to co-found Vox. He’d show up to events with a first edition of Jean Anthèlme Brillat-Savarin’s 1825 “The Physiology of Taste” and quote one of the book’s most famous lines: “The destiny of nations depends upon the manner in which they feed themselves.” But none of the big food issues of the time—buying local, obesity, school lunch reform—quite seemed to satisfy him. What he kept coming back to was hunger.
From his early days in Washington, Andrés volunteered at DC Central Kitchen, a nonprofit with a radical model: Take food that would otherwise be thrown away, hire people who needed a job—ex-cons, former addicts—and train them to make meals for the homeless. Founded by a former nightclub manager named Robert Egger, DCCK prided itself on its punk-rock, seat-of-the-pants culture, but underlying the swagger was a coherent philosophy—that charity should be about the liberation of the receiver, rather than the redemption of the giver.
In January 2010, Andrés was at a fancy food festival in the Cayman Islands after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake flattened Haiti. Soon, he was in Port-au-Prince, cooking in camps with a Spanish nongovernmental organization. About 160,000 Haitians died—the devastation shocked Andrés. But what startled him most was that while the medical operations were led by doctors and the rebuilding efforts were headed by architects, food aid was under the direction of bureaucrats rather than cooks. “There was nothing based on that kind of expertise,” he recalled. That year, he founded World Central Kitchen.
Over the next seven years, Andrés showed up everywhere. In Haiti, WCK launched social enterprises like a bakery run out of an orphanage. Andrés promoted clean cookstoves in Cambodia and India. He joined the Red Cross to clean up New York in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, and battled Houston officials who refused to allow his teams to use the convention center kitchen after Hurricane Harvey because of “contractual issues.” By the time Andrés made landfall in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017, you almost had to feel sorry for the poor officials in charge.
Arriving eight days before Trump infamously tossed out rolls of paper towels to desperate citizens, Andrés found an island without power, fuel or leadership. Though he’d told his wife he’d be there for just a few days, he stayed for a month. Over the next nine months, he mobilized chefs, purveyors, schools, truck drivers and 20,000 volunteers to serve 3.7 million meals. “He has this bizarre drive,” Egger told me. “And it fucking works. I think he’ll never pull it off, and he does.”
At the time, the press coverage of WCK tended to focus on the novelty of the food itself: the enormous pans of fragrant paella and sancocho, the classic Puerto Rican beef stew, cooked over open flames, rather than the drab, shelf-stable MREs often provided by aid agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the United Nations’ World Food Programme. What Andrés was trying to do, though, was far more ambitious. He was trying to make humanitarian aid more human—responsive to the specific needs of people in crisis, rather than determined by massive systems and protocols. I first heard Andrés articulate this last December, when I ran into him at the house of a mutual friend who was sitting shiva for her husband. He arrived late, bearing a still-warm casserole. Though it was obviously a somber occasion, people crowded around him. “A national treasure,” I heard a woman murmur as he passed by.
“We’re more concerned about scale and mass–
Craig Fugate, former FEMA administrator
On the afternoon of September 3, Andrés was pacing and cursing on the airport tarmac. His helicopter was loaded with 1,800 pounds of food, but the radio tower kept telling WCK’s helicopter pilot, McHenry Priestley, to stand by. Apoplectic, Andrés bombarded the press secretary of the Bahamian prime minister with WhatsApp messages. Soon after, “Air José” was granted special permission to take off.
The next day, with help from the prime minister’s office, Andrés procured a special code to expedite his twice-a-day food delivery flights. The World Food Programme, which had to wait on an official government invitation to take action, delivered its first supplies to the Abacos three days later. “If WCK had not been on [Great] Abaco I truly believe people would have died,” said Brad Kieserman, a veteran of disaster aid who clashed bitterly with Andrés while working for FEMA in Puerto Rico and now serves as president of operations and logistics for the American Red Cross.
This is one of a dozen stories from the Bahamas where Andrés pestered, pressured or bullied his way to a solution. In Great Abaco, the island hardest hit by Dorian, WCK “rented” cars from residents who were fleeing the island, and siphoned gas out of destroyed boats to fuel them. The cars’ tires kept popping while traversing roads flooded by debris, so WCK had an air compressor flown in to pump them up. Priestley, the helicopter pilot, said that on the twice-daily runs, Andrés would regularly request additional landings. “He’d jump out and interview people and find out if the kitchen in [Great] Abaco or Marsh Harbor could support them and whether he needed to do more,” Priestley said.
This approach is at once revolutionary and shockingly obvious. It shouldn't be rocket science to call on a broad network of contacts, use cheap, ubiquitous technologies and empower staff to make decisions in real time. And yet, the improvised nature of WCK’s work constitutes a serious reimagining of food aid. Ben Ramalingam, author of the book “Aid on the Edge of Chaos: Rethinking International Cooperation in a Complex World,” told me that when he proposed, early in his career, an academic study of innovation in disaster assistance, he was told that “innovation doesn’t have anything to do with the humanitarian sector.” That was a private-sector thing.
Ramalingam walked me through the sector’s core weaknesses: rigidity, poor funding for disasters that lack media appeal, political bottlenecks and failure by the “experts” to assess what a community actually needs, rather than what the organization is accustomed to delivering. “The giver can become an enabler,” he explained, echoing the DC Central Kitchen philosophy. “We need to move away from the idea of humanitarians as knights in shining armor.”
We got to talking in the kitchen. Andrés quickly became exercised about his work in the Bahamas, where WCK had been operating since September in the wake of Hurricane Dorian. A hotel he had visited “didn’t give a shit” about their employees; they just wanted to fill out the insurance paperwork and get their money. A whole island, whose buildings looked fine from a flyby, had been overlooked by aid organizations, which didn’t realize that the islanders relied on deliveries of food and water that had come to a halt. Andrés poured himself a generous glass of wine and leaned in to me: “We are not a feeding organization. We are a distribution organization.”
It took me a minute to understand what he meant, which is that cooking tasty food is actually the easy part. What’s hard is getting that good food to people—and fast.
To understand how WCK stands apart, you have to first understand how standard disaster aid operates. After an earthquake or a hurricane, aid agencies wait to be asked to help. If the disaster unfolds in the U.S., a state puts in a formal request to FEMA; countries go to the U.N. World Food Programme. Once an agency receives a formal invitation, it conducts an assessment of what is needed for food, shelter and medical care. While food is obviously essential, the quality of the food is usually an afterthought. “We’re more concerned about scale and mass—keeping you alive, not providing great-tasting meals,” explained Craig Fugate, who served as administrator for FEMA under President Barack Obama.
These assessments can take days, and it takes even more time to move personnel and cooking equipment into a disaster zone. In the meantime, aid agencies tend to rely on MREs, or meals ready to eat—field rations designed for soldiers with appetizing contents such as “vegetable crumbles with pasta in taco sauce.” MREs are miraculous in their own way: In his book “We Fed An Island,” Andrés recalls seeing kids in Haiti kicking one around like a soccer ball. But it’s fair to say they provide little comfort. They are also expensive: On average, a single MRE costs between $8 and $10, which is two to four times what it costs WCK to serve people a popular local dish with fresh ingredients.
WCK’s model, in contrast, makes use of resources on the ground instead of importing them. It finds an empty restaurant or commercial kitchen, buys the food sitting in their freezers and employs their staff to cook and deliver food. In addition to being cheaper, this immediately starts to pump money into the local economy. According to FEMA, roughly half of local businesses fail after a disaster. WCK tries to help with that too. In 2018, it established a grant and mentoring program to invest in food businesses, farmers and fishermen struggling in the aftermath of disaster. In Puerto Rico, the Bahamas and the U.S. Virgin Islands, it has so far invested $1.9 million in 125 grants.
Engaging local resources offers relief agencies a lot less control, which is why the big ones shy away from it. In the aftermath of disaster, roads are flooded, communications destroyed. You don’t know what kitchens you’ll find, or whether there will be anyone to drive a delivery truck. Fugate, Obama’s FEMA chief, put it like this: “The federal government operates not from ‘What needs to be done,’ but ‘How do we not screw up?’ All that bureaucracy isn’t about getting things done. It’s about minimizing risk… WCK embraces the chaos.”
late August 2019, forecasters knew that Hurricane Dorian was going to be an epic storm. They just didn’t know where it would make landfall. Early predictions pointed to Puerto Rico, where Nate Mook, WCK’s CEO, was on the ground, connecting with chefs who had helped WCK during Maria and moving food to strategic locations. Then Dorian swerved unexpectedly east, toward Florida. Mook rushed back to Washington to make calls to various “Friends of José,” who might have a kitchen to share, and to make dozens of refundable hotel reservations in multiple locations. WCK had operations ready in Palm Beach, Miami and Tallahassee when, on August 31, the storm’s track shifted again. Mook had only a few hours to get people to the Bahamas before planes were grounded. Andrés abruptly left an event at the Library of Congress, where he was speaking along with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, to catch one of the last flights into Nassau. By the time he arrived, rain was coming down sideways and palm trees were lurching. Andrés, of course, took the opportunity to shoot a short selfie video for Twitter. In his trademark khaki fishing vest, squinting against the elements, his voice buffeted by the roar, he looked like some grizzled Weather Channel reporter getting one last live shot before packing it in.
Andrés has a restaurant in a Nassau resort, which made a kitchen available. But the trick was getting the food from the capital, which had been mostly spared by the storm, to the decimated islands of Grand Bahamas and the Abacos, which looked, Mook told me, “like the hand of God came and just wiped everything off the map.” WCK had hired a helicopter, but Bahamian air traffic control was overwhelmed. Not even the U.S. Coast Guard, which is guaranteed clearance
by international agreement, could get
a green light to fly.
“All the people clapping at each other, we look like seals fed a sardine.
was the 13th of March when Nick Wiseman realized he had to close the doors of Little Sesame, his two hummus restaurants in Washington, D.C. His customers—mostly downtown office workers—were all at home. He had just signed a lease for a new location, increasing his expenses by a third at the exact moment his revenues dropped to zero. In his first Zoom call with employees, Wiseman tried to project confidence,
making grand statements about the company’s
“resilience.” It mostly worked, but only because no
one, including Wiseman, truly understood how ugly
things were about to get. “It hit us like a tidal wave,”
Little Sesame employed 50 people. Wiseman figured that if he could feed someone, he could keep at least a few people on payroll. By Monday morning, he had a plan to transform one restaurant into a community kitchen to feed the vulnerable. That first week, Little Sesame sold $30,000 worth of “buy a meal, give a meal” gift cards to seed the program. Private donors and foundations ponied up enough to fund six weeks of 500 meals a day. When the six weeks ended, Wiseman turned to World Central Kitchen, which agreed to finance him.
The coronavirus almost seems designed to attack every aspect of the restaurant industry. Though restaurants are nominally about food, they are really gathering places. The business model, such as it was, was to pack lots of people together in small, indoor spaces with a return of 10 percent—if the owner was lucky. In the first six weeks of the pandemic, 5.9 million restaurant jobs vanished. The losses accounted for one quarter of the newly unemployed—more than any other industry. Even restaurants that were permitted to reopen and hire back staff find themselves with few viable options. The math just doesn’t work if you’re operating at 25 percent capacity, or even 50 percent. Restaurants that pivot to takeout and delivery can’t charge the same prices they can for
sit-down dining. Even if they could, they no longer need
a full staff of sommeliers, bartenders, hosts and
dishwashers. When I asked Mitchell Davis, formerly of
the James Beard Foundation, just how bleak the future is
for restaurants, he fumbled for words: “It’s a catastrophe. I
can’t see how the industry gets through the next two years.”
Congress responded with a program that was spectacularly ill-suited to the industry’s problems. The Paycheck Protection Program, passed in March, allowed businesses to borrow money. But it only forgave loans if businesses rehired staff at pre-pandemic levels within eight weeks—all but impossible for small, independent restaurants that were still closed or doing glorified takeout. A May revision of the law allowed slightly more flexibility, but according to the Independent Restaurant Coalition, a hastily assembled lobbying organization, restaurants need a $120 billion “stabilization fund” to help rehire employees, cover shortfalls and invest in protective equipment like plastic shields and new ventilation systems. Without assistance, the IRC predicts that as many as 85 percent of independent restaurants may close.
Andrés knew from his own business that what restaurants needed most was money coming in, and fast. WCK arranged to pay restaurants $10 per meal (enough to cover the food plus the staff to prepare it), then arranged for the food to go to hospitals, shelters and nursing homes. The setup was not entirely new. WCK had harnessed hundreds of restaurants to help feed 800,000 federal workers furloughed during the historic government shutdown in 2019. But this initiative would be exponentially bigger. With donations from America’s Food Fund (powered by Laurene Powell Jobs and Leonardo DiCaprio), Bloomberg Philanthropies, Jeffrey Katzenberg’s startup Quibi and Jack Dorsey’s Start Small, WCK funneled $110 million to 2,400 restaurants, which in turn served 10 million meals.
Of course, Andrés is, in his way, the picture of a knight in shining armor. The history of celebrity aid missions is a mixed one (see Wyclef Jean in Haiti or Brad Pitt post-Katrina in New Orleans). Still, in multiple conversations with disaster relief veterans, I was surprised to discover how quick they were to praise Andrés—and how muted their criticisms were. Ramalingam complained that there were no formal evaluations of WCK’s work, as is standard in Big Aid. WCK also sometimes overplays how nimble it is compared to the major agencies: In the Bahamas, for example, the World Food Programme was also on the ground before the storm hit. And though Andrés beat them to the Abacos, WFP had far greater responsibilities: setting up logistics hubs, re-establishing communications and coordinating with 35 humanitarian partners.
There are also the inevitable gripes that Andrés is simply too cocky. “In the Bahamas, the National Emergency Management Agency said no one should go in, and … José was like, ‘I have a plane, I will go,’” one disaster relief veteran told me on condition of anonymity. “He’s like, ‘Fuck coordination meetings and exchanging information.’ It’s a cowboy thing that does work in a way.”
Andrés has a deep disdain for the humanitarian world’s endless meetings, conferences and awards, of which he has received many. “All the people clapping at each other, we look like seals fed a sardine,” he said. “It’s all big bullshit.” Ultimately, he hopes that WCK’s most successful improvisations will be adopted by larger institutions. “We are the startups of Silicon Valley for NGOs,” he said. “We don’t plan. We adapt to the market. We are everything the government sometimes is not.”
In the first six weeks of the pandemic, 5.9 million restaurant jobs vanished, accounting for one quarter of the newly unemployed—
Was it enough? Of course not. Those 2,400 restaurants make up less than one half of 1 percent of the 500,000 in need of help throughout the country. But for the establishments WCK funded, the money was a lifeline. Little Sesame brought back half its staff and, with the subsequent addition of takeout and a new website, managed to just about break even. Irena Stein, proprietor of the Venezuelan restaurant Alma Cocina Latina in Baltimore, which cooked 1,500 meals per week with WCK funding, put it this way: “José Andrés saved us.”
Now imagine if the federal government had pitched in. Back-of-the-envelope math based on WCK’s program suggests that around $20 billion in federal aid could have floated nearly every independent restaurant in the country. This is both dramatically less than the $120 billion the IRC is asking for, and would have had the added benefit of erasing, or at least shrinking, the long lines at food banks across the U.S. Instead, in the intervening months, the crisis has only escalated. In September, the National Restaurant Association reported that one in six restaurants—100,000 nationwide—had shuttered, eliminating almost 3 million jobs. Meanwhile, America reversed 12 years of steady progress fighting hunger. According to the Brookings Institution, nearly one in five families with children reported not being able to put enough food on the table—the highest rate since the Great Recession—with Black and Hispanic households experiencing food insecurity at twice the rates of white households. “There is no private-sector nonprofit, no organization that can do things at the scale of the federal government,” Mook said.
I spoke to Andrés a week after the election. He was at his home in Bethesda, but only briefly before heading to Honduras, where Hurricane Eta, the 29th storm of the busiest hurricane season on record, had buried swaths of the country in mud. My first question was whether he’d be interested in having the job of a federal food czar–an idea he has floated, including directly to Biden in his May town hall. “Listen,” he said, “I don't take anything off the table. If one day I can serve my country, it would be great.” At this point, though, Andrés believes his talents might be better used to develop and test new ideas that can, once proven, be powered by federal money.
Under a Biden administration, Andrés suggested, WCK might expand its scope to take on food deserts—poor neighborhoods without access to fresh, healthy food—as well as school meals, agricultural supply chains and more, serving as a kind of innovation lab for U.S. food security. “I do believe we need good people in government and policymaking. We need even more people with boots on the ground. I think I want to be connecting with people in the places we are trying to help, rather than making speeches or the policies themselves.”
Nevertheless, over the last couple of months Andrés drafted a policy memo, titled “Rebuilding American Health, Community and National Security Through Food Leadership.” Just five pages long, it synthesizes and simplifies key policy actions that, as he writes, would deliver “a 360-degree national food policy that serves all Americans.”
Many of the memo’s specific recommendations won’t surprise anyone who follows food policy. Andrés calls for increasing SNAP’s per-meal allotment to reflect the real cost of a healthy diet, for instance, and spending $4 billion to upgrade school kitchens to feed hungry students and the wider communities. He wants FEMA to make emergency feeding a top priority, not a second-tier function on par with tasks like debris removal. But what’s remarkable about the document is its breadth. It stitches together everything from hunger and disaster relief to agriculture and food diplomacy efforts (like supporting Central American farmers to help reduce the stream of migrants to the U.S.) into a holistic vision for a national food system that acknowledges the interconnected nature of all these policies.
What drives Andrés crazy is the way bureaucrats define progress as endlessly tweaking around the edges, their refusal or inability to see a broken system and to fix it. Take hunger. For nearly 50 years, the fight over how to solve it has revolved almost entirely around a single program: SNAP, or food stamps. It is estimated that by the end of 2020, as many as 54 million Americans could struggle to put food on the table. Yet anti-hunger groups are thrilled at the prospect of a president who is willing to increase SNAP aid by 15 percent, even though they themselves admit that it would take double that to address the problem in a meaningful way.
“We need to take food seriously,” Andrés says, “or one day we may have the hard awakening that America is destabilized because of a lack of food.” Andrés wants the conversation about food policy to move beyond the food itself—beyond specific nutrition guidance or the question of access to healthy foods—and consider things like labor, transportation and corporate consolidation, which profoundly shape how America is, or isn’t, fed.
It’s far from certain that Andrés will see his vision realized anytime soon, even if President Biden embraces it. The new administration is inheriting a deeply divided America with a decimated economy, a record daily number of coronavirus cases, and, most likely, a hostile Republican Senate. Andrés says he will keep “knocking on the doors of people who take these opportunities seriously.” In the meantime, the plan is to keep using WCK to show what’s possible. “For everything we’ve done,” Andrés told me, “this is just the beginning.”
Throughout the pandemic, however, WCK has not had
one conversation with FEMA’s leadership. “Listen, FEMA
people that do emergencies have never spoken to us since
Puerto Rico,” Andrés said. “WCK was able to provide for a million when FEMA couldn't activate almost anything. Would you not say that we deserve kind of a briefing? Like, ‘Hey, guys, how exactly you did what you did?’” A FEMA spokesperson said WCK participated in the agency’s COVID-19 partners call, adding: “We do not have a Memorandum of Agreement [with WCK], but that does not preclude us from partnering with them on any and all coordination efforts. We are always very supportive of voluntary organizations who are seeking to engage in the coordinated response effort.”
Andrés was diplomatic about the feds’ failure to act in the spring. But by summer, his tone had changed. WCK fed protesters during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, including the infamous one in D.C.’s Lafayette Square where police gassed people to clear the way for a presidential photo-op. This fall, Andrés endorsed Biden, then unleashed WCK’s “Chefs for the Polls” initiative, which served half a million meals to voters who endured hours-long waits to cast a ballot.
In a marked contrast to the Trump administration, President-elect Biden already has signaled support for Andrés’ approach. In the Yahoo News town hall with Andrés in May, Biden promised that as president, “I would be protecting meatpackers, farmworkers, food suppliers. I’d boost the SNAP program. I’d harness the restaurant industry to help get food to those who need it and help get millions of laid-off workers back to work and a job. That’s what the chef is doing. This is not rocket science, it’s leadership and it’s organization.” The following day, the campaign released a formal statement that called for a 15 percent increase to the SNAP program (formerly known as food stamps) and the passage of the (FEED) Act, a bipartisan bill—co-sponsored by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris—that would allow FEMA to temporarily increase support to states and cover all payments to restaurants that provide food to vulnerable populations. “With a partner in the White House, this strategy can be scaled up nationally,” Biden declared.
Story by Jane Black. Jane is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers food politics, public health and sustainability issues. Her work appears in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.
Illustrations by Luis Mazón. Luis is a Barcelona-based illustrator.
Art Direction and Design by Rebecca Zisser. Rebecca is an art director at HuffPost in NYC.
Research by Ben Kalin. Ben is the founder of Fact-Check Pros, a full-service fact-checking agency.
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