World Central Kitchen: How Chef José Andrés Uses Culture to Address Rapid Food Response

During the devastation of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico, the blast that destroyed Beirut, the bushfires that tore through Australia, all the way on through the Covid-19 pandemic, World Central Kitchen has made efforts to address food crises all over the world.

Last week, we talked about Hurricane Katrina and how different communities responded to the trigger crisis.

We also discussed how a community or country’s culture can predict its response and how this can be used by organizations to address such crises.

This is what Chef José Andrés has done with his organization, World Central Kitchen.

To Andrés, Hurricane Katrina was a tipping point.

The disastrous response regarding food relief during the natural disaster – especially what went on in the super dome – is one of the reasons he and his wife, Patricia, sought a way to address rapid food response in the wake of a disaster.

Andres told Anderson Cooper on CNN that when it comes to leadership, the most important thing in a crisis is the ability to adapt

This is because not all crises are the same and not all cultures are the same

Being prepared, with a plan in place, is essential. But even more essential is the ability to be flexible.

The Cons of Airdropping

Many organizations and governments supply humanitarian aid in the form of airdropping food packages, but this tactic has long been criticized by aid workers.

Some see it as a public-relations stunt that serves only as a temporary bandaid to a food crisis.

Moreover, this response can put lives at risk.

When the US government air-dropped emergency rations into Afghanistan in 2001, aid workers called the stunt dangerous.

An article in The Guardian reports,

First, because the food will never get to those who really need it. More dangerously, those who run out to retrieve the packets risk being blown up by landmines.”

Additionally, although the food packets served vegetarian meals in line with Muslim dietary law, according to some, the contents showed a level of “cultural ineptitude.” 

The first humanitarian airdrop into Syria by the UN’s World Food Program in 2016 reiterated the limitations of this type of aid.

According to an article by Vice, there was no accountability for the airdrop.

It was uncertain as to where the 21-ton package landed, into whose hands it arrived, or how it would be distributed.

Food is Comfort

World Central Kitchen addresses these issues and more, not only in the face of natural disasters but in the face of war.

Andrés and his team of local and international volunteers are currently on the ground in the war in Ukraine.

One of the most effective aspects of the organization is its focus on the micro – on “locally-led solutions” to crises.

In World Central Kitchen’s story, Andrés writes,

We don’t just dump free food into a disaster zone: we source and hire locally wherever we can, to jump-start economic recovery through food.”

Andrés’ understanding of the importance of food in culture is what has made his organization such a success.

He explains that after the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010, he joined local cooks to help feed displaced Haitians at a camp.

He recalls:

I found myself getting schooled in how to cook black beans the way they wanted: mashed and sieved into a creamy sauce.”

Andrés sees that food culture is comfort. 

He knows that comfort in a crisis is paramount to a community’s morale. 

Food can feed that sense of hopelessness and instability that results from displacement and disaster.

He writes:

Food relief is not just a meal that keeps hunger away. It’s a plate of hope. It tells you in your darkest hour that someone, somewhere, cares about you.

This is the real meaning of comfort food. It’s why we make the effort to cook in a crisis.”

Following Andrés lead, other nonprofit organizations should consider losing the umbrella approach and taking up his template.

Adopt an adaptive outlook and address crises on a local level with consideration of culture.