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.

Culture in Crisis, Part II: How Cultural Values Impact Communal Response to Trigger Events

We’ve discussed how cultural values can predict how a community will respond to crisis.

In a continuation of last week’s post, we’ll look at the conclusion of the 2007 study by Melinda Rene Miller, titled “The Human Element: A Study of the Effects of Culture on Crisis Reactions.”

Hurricane Katrina

With the crisis of Hurricane Katrina as the backdrop, the study looked at two communities within the disaster area and their responses to it.

The values of the New Orleans Ninth Ward and the Mississippi Gulf Coast communities differ, and the study sought to draw strong correlations between these preexisting cultural values and corresponding reactions to determine if community crisis reactions can be predicted based on culture.

The study examined each communities’ demographics, communication styles, association with authorities, relationship to the environment, group unity and community roles, amongst other aspects, to infer their values regarding each category.

Key Differences in Response

The study found key differences in response to Hurricane Katrina between Louisiana’s Ninth Ward and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Let’s look at Louisiana’s Ninth Ward:

  • Community Roles Analysis: A community roles analysis showed preexisting beliefs in the inefficiency of leaders, which led to internal disputes and an inability to make unified decisions. This resulted in mixed messages, distrust, confusion, and an inability to execute a crisis plan. Additionally, many police and emergency services officers reportedly abandoned their posts.
  • Demographic Analysis: Evacuation plans failed to include segments of the population, including the ill, those with pets, and those without vehicles or places to go. The demographic analysis showed 30 percent of the Ninth Ward was disabled and over 30 percent didn’t own a car. Many lived below the poverty line and so had no emergency savings to evacuate. Further, personal relationships (even with pets) and fear of change were ingrained in Ninth Ward culture. The paper deems that the culture in the community was “every man for himself”; the onus was on the government to fix things and building back the community together was not considered a personal responsibility.
  • Communication Style Analysis: Many in the ward ignored the evacuation order. The communication style analysis showed that though the community values orders to some degree, having been repeatedly given this evacuation order before unnecessarily, they did not believe authorities and thought the storm would blow over. They also feared looters more than the storm.

Those in the Mississippi Gulf Coast:

  • Community Roles Analysis: Although the government response to the Mississippi Gulf Coast community was equally slow, the people began cleanup on their own. Their values include a can-do attitude, resulting in community rebuilding that was 21 percent more expedited than in the Ninth Ward.  The police force and firefighters were on duty around-the-clock, as dictated by the local government.
  • Demographic Analysis: In the study, there is little mention of the impact of demographics on the response. It would be interesting to see these differences fleshed out, as the wealth and health of the community significantly impacts its ability to respond.
  • Communication Style Analysis: To prevent looting, the local government controlled supplies and resources, in order to distribute them equally to citizens. In rebuilding of the area, the government asked the community to be mindful of elevation maps and received support and excitement about the restructuring rather than the resistance experienced in the Ninth Ward.

The study explains why knowledge about cultural values is valuable in this context:

“Being able to make the claim that a community’s culture has a greater effect on the public’s reaction to a crisis trigger event than the event itself, will aid future research in focusing more on creating a list of cultural aspects that match with crisis response strategies.”

The Way Forward

The conclusion drawn from this study is that knowing a culture and its values provides a wealth of information that can be applied to a crisis response strategy customized to that culture’s values. 

Consider the most recent global pandemic.

Culture influenced the various outcomes of different countries and communities around the world during the COVID crisis.

The reactions to supply rationing, the degree of adherence to face mask rules and social distancing, the acceptance of or reluctance to vaccination – and the resulting outcomes of such actions/inactions – all of this has roots in each nation’s culture and its values.

Cross-cultural research into the varying cultural responses and their outcomes to the COVID crisis, and other similar large-scale crises, could greatly aid organizations and governments in creating more effective response strategies customized to different cultural pockets in a nation – and to the nation as a whole.