Before long, though, World Central Kitchen’s line of credit was exhausted. Andrés approached FEMA, requesting a partnership. If the federal government would fund the supplies, World Central Kitchen could prepare and distribute locally sourced food and water to those in need. When he presented his plan at a meeting with FEMA officials eight days after the storm, Andrés said he was told, “Food isn’t a priority right now.” At a subsequent meeting, he was told he had to bid for a contract.
Speaking by phone from his office in Washington, D.C., Andrés, 49, still gets worked up over the red tape he encountered.
“Don’t tell me when you have almost 3 million Americans going thirsty and hungry that you have to take a bidding to provide them with food and water,” Andrés said. “We cannot let bidding put weeks between the needs and the aid. When Americans are hungry, food should be given to them the day of.”
Volunteers make sandwiches at the coliseum in San Juan, where up to 90,000 meals a day were produced after Hurricane Maria. CONTRIBUTED BY WORLD CENTRAL KITCHEN
Andrés and his volunteers forged ahead on faith that funding would materialize. As their efforts ramped up to fill a growing need, they moved operations to the Puerto Rico Coliseum, opened additional kitchens around the island, and enlisted food trucks to deliver meals to remote areas. At its peak, the World Central Kitchen effort helped empower 25 kitchens to prepare and distribute more than 3.6 million meals.
And, eventually, FEMA provided support.
“Let’s be clear,” Andrés said, “in the end, FEMA helped us. But, we wasted time, and we wasted effort. The individuals at the lower level are all great people who work overtime 24/7. Where we fell down is leadership.”
Andrés is the James Beard Award-winning chef of the Michelin two-starred restaurant Minibar in Washington, one of 31 establishments in his restaurant group, ThinkFoodGroup. He became involved in disaster relief after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. That experience prompted him to start his organization, to provide food to disaster victims by working with local food suppliers and community kitchens.
“We Fed an Island” describes the world of disaster relief as “a jungle of tenders and requirements, contracts and fees, of middlemen and bureaucrats handling millions of dollars.”
According to Andrés, although he was communicating directly with FEMA, he had to broker a deal with the agency through Josh Gill, a former director of emergency services in Louisiana, who now runs a federal contracting business. The book details the somewhat contentious negotiations Andrés and Gill had over the latter’s compensation for brokering the deal. Gill wanted $1 per meal, which Andrés initially agreed to pay. But, when Andrés realized the scope of the operation, he capped Gill at $250,000.
Andrés doesn’t blame Gill. “He’s a good guy,” Andrés said. “Without him, I couldn’t have gotten the contract.”
Instead, Andrés faults the system.
“We Fed an Island: The True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at a Time” by José Andrés. CONTRIBUTED BY ANTHONY BOURDAIN BOOKS / ECCO
“Our return on investment is a betterment of the life of the people. So, for me, what was very strange is, if I was talking directly to FEMA people, why did I have to have third parties involved? This is something people should be looking into.”
Andrés has strong opinions about how disaster relief could be handled better. The first step, he said, is removing political partisanship.
“This is not about Republican against Democrat,” he said. “This is not about who is in power at the time of the catastrophe. This is about having a true comprehensive response when these things happen.”
Andrés said he understands the need for a large agency like FEMA to have procedures and a contract bidding process. But, when disaster strikes, he recommended there be special teams in place that can adapt to situations in real time and have the authority to make decisions as needed.
“Sometimes, it’s not more people you need, it’s the right people,” Andrés said. “We need real-time leadership, where a leader is on the ground making decisions.”
And, instead of paying to ship in emergency meals from remote sites, he believes food should be sourced and prepared locally, which eliminates shipping costs and helps the local economy recover.
World Central Kitchen is now educating farmers in Puerto Rico on techniques such as hydroponics, and providing grants for equipment to help the island become less dependent on imports for food. It’s also continuing to bring emergency aid to other disaster areas, like the volcano in Hawaii, the Carr fire in California and the earthquake in Indonesia.
Andrés plans to continue juggling his culinary career and the efforts of World Central Kitchen for now.
“While I’m young, I want to do both. But, for me, sometimes it’s hard. I hope I don’t have to choose someday between one or the other,” he said.
“Feeding the few, it’s gratifying. It’s good for the ego. Feeding the many, it’s so exciting. You feel like there’s a reason you are on earth.”
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