As Puerto Ricans struggle following Hurricane Maria, and US aid seems in short supply, celebrity chef José Andrés is stepping in—serving more meals than even the Red Cross.
When an earthquake rocked Haiti in 2010, chef José Andrés felt compelled to do something useful. Andrés, who is known for his jovial personality and his equally playful cuisine at restaurants like Jaleo and Zaytinya in Washington, DC, could easily stay in the comfy circles of the upscale culinary world—he’s a James Beard-awarded ‘Outstanding Chef’ and earlier this year, he was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the International Association of Culinary Professionals.
But the restless, globe-trotting Andrés has never been content to confine himself to gleaming kitchens with multi-burner stoves and well-stocked walk-ins, and so he founded World Central Kitchen, a non-profit that unites chefs and deploys them to communities in need—think ‘Chefs Without Borders.’
While World Central Kitchen provides ongoing culinary training and job opportunities in several countries, it’s become best known for its disaster response work. And so, when Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, knocking out the electrical grid, destroying roads, and creating a water and food crisis, it didn’t take long for Andrés to decide he’d deploy his team to the island.
Since Hurricane Maria ripped across the island, the mainland US media has been tracking stories about the difficulty of disaster response efforts. Even in good times, life is often more complicated on an island; in hard times, the most basic logistics become nearly impossible to execute. The scale of devastation caused by the hurricane, sweeping not just the coastlines, but also across the entire interior of the island, was unprecedented for Puerto Rico.
Nearly a month after the hurricane hit, most of the island’s residents remain without electricity and drinking water—and the situation doesn’t look like it’s going to get better anytime soon.
And what’s less reported in mainstream outlets is how electricity and water availability further complicate the daily challenge of cooking and eating. With no diesel, trucks can’t deliver food to supermarkets. And with no or extremely limited power, often generator-powered, grocery stores—even mega-chains like Sam’s Club and Walmart—can’t stock meat and dairy products, even if supplies are making it to the island.
Without power, Puerto Ricans can’t use debit or credit cards to buy food that is available, and it’s hard to withdraw cash from banks. And while the US Postal Service claims it’s doing its best to deliver care packages from the mainland to Puerto Rico, on-the-ground reports suggest that packages of food and other necessities sent weeks ago still haven’t shown up.
There’s been intense criticism of FEMA, the federal agency responsible for disaster response, which is widely viewed as not acting quickly or decisively enough to send the aid that was available to the areas and people most affected by the hurricane. FEMA, in response, has blamed Puerto Rican politicking for its challenges. One of the agency’s most vocal critics is Andrés.
Earlier this week, he bluntly told TIME Magazine: “The American government has failed,” adding that FEMA could be providing more support to him and his team in order to expand their capacity to serve more Puerto Ricans in need.
Andrés and World Central Kitchen have been on the ground for more than three weeks, and his team reports to Adventure.com that they are providing at least 100,000 meals daily out of multiple locations across the island. On October 17, they served their millionth meal, surpassing the efforts of the Red Cross.
— José Andrés (@chefjoseandres) October 17, 2017
But as Andrés told TIME, a more organized, collaborative effort from FEMA could “immediately get the operation [of World Central Kitchen] to half a million meals a day.”
Andrés’s efforts are having a particularly significant impact in difficult to reach areas, where Puerto Ricans can’t access or fully use aid because of their location and lack of water, electricity, and gas for transportation. Many of these meals have been delivered to the most vulnerable, including hospitals and elderly homes.
As Andrés cooks and serves thousands of meals each day, the chef also ensures that the stories of the people he’s serving are amplified. Andrés is as adept with social media as he is in the kitchen, using Instagram and Twitter in particular, to show the world how devastating the impact of Maria has been and how resilient survivors are, even in the face of so much ongoing need.
He has shared photos of kitchen set-up efforts on the off-shore island of Vieques, which was also devastated by the hurricane, of pop-up paella teams deployed around the island, and he’s gone toe-to-toe with Twitter public enemy #1, President Donald Trump, to specify exactly what Puerto Ricans need.
— José Andrés (@chefjoseandres) October 16, 2017
Long after the mainstream media sends its correspondents back to New York, Andrés and his team expect to stay on the island to offer support as long as they’re needed.
And as for the US government? We’ll have to wait and see.
To donate to World Central Kitchen’s Puerto Rico efforts, please visit worldcentralkitchen.org/donate.