A new kind of disaster requires a new kind of response.
By Nate Mook as told to Chris Mohney
Nate Mook is CEO of World Central Kitchen, the nonprofit organization founded by chef José Andrés to help provide food relief from the effects of disasters.
When World Central Kitchen responded to the federal government shutdown last year, we met federal workers who, for the first time in their lives, were having to stand in line for a plate of food. It was an experience that was very difficult for many working Americans.
We’re now seeing that on an exponential scale across our country. We have millions and millions of people out of work—families unable to put food on the table for their kids. Schools are shut down, and now families have to take care of their kids. It’s a moment most people never thought that they would be in.
But I think we’re also seeing—and you see this in disasters around the world too—some of the best of who we are. So while this is obviously a major tragedy and a crisis for the country, we’re also seeing incredible stories of hope and resilience, and communities and neighbors supporting each other—especially in the restaurant world.
You’re seeing restaurants stay open for the sole purpose of serving their communities. You’re seeing groups organizing support mechanisms, whether it’s free meals or funds for hospitality workers. We’re seeing chefs go to work preparing meals for their neighbors who are out of work. We’re seeing amazing, hard-working food-service workers at schools across the country continuing to work hard every single day to prepare meals for students, and do it in a way that everything has to be distributed individually, so it’s an incredible amount of work. We’re seeing the immense hardship that our society is facing right now, and how important access to food is, and how fragile these systems really are.
Typically when we look at disasters that break down our social fabric, they tend to be geographically isolated, like hurricanes or some event that causes a specific area to be affected. This situation is touching every state in our country, and every country in the world. Even looking at the United States, it’s touching big cities, it’s touching rural areas, and everything in between. And the reality is that any one organization, any one institution—even our federal government—simply does not have the capacity to respond to it everywhere. That means the most important thing right now is what’s happening on the local level. It’s the local leadership, the local community-based organizations. It’s the local restaurants. They’re the ones that really are on the front lines of this every single day.
When World Central Kitchen started to organize our response, we rolled out a program called Chefs for America, where restaurants can sign up and do work for their community. We also encouraged folks and provided materials for restaurants who just wanted to do it on their own. Nobody had to join us. Everybody is doing it in their own way, which is amazing. We started to see that this was a way that folks could serve. Not everybody could do it. We’re very cognizant of the fact that restaurants operate on very low margins, and with the economic crisis and people unable to go out to eat, many restaurants simply had to shut down because they had no choice. But for those that were able to find a way to make it happen, we’ve been seeing incredible stories across the country.
There’s a restaurant down in Williamsburg, Virginia, called La Tienda. They’ve been serving meals on their own for the community. They haven’t asked for anything. They just jumped in and started doing the work. Another restaurant up in Boston, Pagu, is run by a chef named Tracy Chang. She’s kept her restaurant running to feed the frontline workers. And there’s a great restaurant in the Bronx called Beatstro. It’s one of our hubs where World Central Kitchen is distributing a lot of meals, and they’re cooking meals for the hospitals.
We’re seeing the high-profile folks like Daniel Humm and Eleven Madison Park shutting down to create meals. But I think almost most important is all of these efforts by restaurants you’ve never heard of in places most people have never been to. That’s how we can support folks that otherwise aren’t being reached.
We’re expecting this to go on for quite a while. We have to look at this like a marathon, not a sprint. The mechanisms for serving people are completely different than typical disaster response, and it’s something this country is struggling with as a whole because of the health and safety factors in play.
In a normal disaster response, the infrastructure is knocked offline. You lose water, you lose electricity, there’s damage to buildings. The systems that keep things going are not functional. But in this case, all the systems are functional. The capacity is there. There is even food. There’s a lot of food. We’re hearing stories about farmers having to throw away their produce because there’s nobody to sell it to right now. You have dairies that are dumping their milk.
The big challenge, and one that this country has never really faced before on this scale, is how you get that food to those who need it most. You can’t have congregate feeding sites. You can’t tell people to go somewhere and eat a plate of food. In many cases, food has to be brought to those unable to go anywhere—seniors that need to stay isolated at home, or families that don’t have the ability to drive somewhere or get on public transit because transit has been shut down.
How do we reach those vulnerable populations? Cooking is only one half of the equation. Everybody can cook. Everybody can get a restaurant up and running and cook some meals. But the tricky part is how you get that food to those who need it most.
That’s what World Central Kitchen is focused on. It’s really dramatically changed our response scenario. In a typical situation, we set up a big kitchen operation or multiple kitchen operations, and we’re cooking lots of meals, and we have distribution systems to deliver those meals to shelters and communities and other places. And we have thousands of volunteers that can participate in the process.
That really doesn’t work anymore in the traditional sense. You can’t have a bunch of people crammed into one kitchen making tons of meals every day. You can’t have people coming to the location to pick up meals. Everything has to be individually packaged, which adds a tremendous amount of work. It’s a very different type of response, and it’s also different depending on where you are.
So we’re doing the cooking ourselves in some cases. We’ve set up a kitchen at Nationals Park in Washington DC, where we’re currently producing about 6,000 meals a day, with the ability to scale up. But in a lot of places, we’re working with partners and local restaurants to prepare those meals so that, in the process of feeding a community, we can put folks back to work. We can pay the restaurants to prepare those meals. It’s a very different type of response, where we can activate this latent capacity that’s sitting there right now.
On one hand, you have restaurants that are sitting empty, and you have employees and chefs that want to cook for somebody, but they don’t have anybody to cook for in their usual way. On the other hand, you have all of these communities that don’t have access to any food. If we can just link those two pieces up, then it’s a win-win across the board.
A big piece of our response now is about adaptation—looking at what’s needed in different communities, looking at how to reach those folks. In Little Rock, Arkansas, we’ve got a fleet of local food trucks that are going out into the most isolated and vulnerable communities that don’t have transport, that can’t even get to the school distribution sites. In a place like Los Angeles County, which is so vast, we’re actually piggybacking on top of the school distribution sites. They have 63 of them, serving about 40,000 meals a day on top of what the school district is doing for breakfast and lunch. Everywhere is a little bit different. In New York City, we’re working with the New York City Housing Authority so we can get food into public housing facilities and senior complexes.
It’s a very tailored approach, but it’s about working closely with those on the ground. I think in a perfect world, World Central Kitchen wouldn’t have to do any cooking ourselves because we could put that back into the local economies, the local independent restaurants, and support them and pay them to do the meals in the process. That’s what we’re hoping to get to as much as possible.
At the core of our mission is how chefs and how the industry are able to play a central role in responding to emergencies, whether that’s a natural disaster like an earthquake or a wildfire or a hurricane, a man-made disaster like a refugee crisis on our southern border, or, in this case, a global pandemic. We’re seeing restaurants, and the food service industry at large, play a critical role in supporting our communities. But it’s a difficult time for the industry.
We’ve been developing the safety protocols that we’ve learned over time since we began our work. We started this in early February in Japan with the cruise ship that was quarantined. So we’ve built systems to do this, and we’ve been sharing them with restaurants. Many that are still up and running in some capacity are adopting these systems. I think health and safety concerns have to be factored into where we are headed in the future.
It’s not clear how quickly people are going to be able to get back into restaurants. We’re certainly not going to pack restaurants like we’ve done in the past and have really crowded places. That landscape is going to change dramatically. What we saw in the early stages of this was a lot of fear, a lot of concern for employees. Restaurant owners are mostly concerned about their staff, and that they’re responsible for supporting them.
Now we’re entering a second wave, where there’s been this acceptance that things are going to change. We’re seeing restaurants that had previously been closed reopen in some capacity, many of them specifically to provide support for the communities in which they exist. We’re seeing communities recognize how important restaurants are and how much they miss them if they’re gone. Our hope is that World Central Kitchen, at least in our small way, can play a role in supporting restaurants, as many as we can, to keep going, keep folks employed as long as possible, and stay open until we get through this.