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‘We Fed an Island’ portrays radical approach to disaster relief

Chef José Andrés criticizes federal efforts in Puerto Rico for lack of urgency, leadership

The latest estimate of lives lost in Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricane Maria is nearing 3,000 and rising. In reading “We Fed an Island” by chef José Andrés, one wonders what that number might have been had the author not arrived five days after the storm and — with the help of 25,000 volunteers — disrupted a federal relief effort he portrays as paralyzed by bureaucracy.

That question haunts the pages of Andrés’ gripping account of the recovery effort, written with Richard Wolffe, author of “Renegade: The Making of a President,” about President Barack Obama’s campaign, which Wolffe covered for Newsweek.

One of the last books to be published under the Anthony Bourdain imprint for Ecco/Harper Collins, “We Fed an Island” depicts the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Red Cross as slow-moving machines too far removed from the suffering of disaster victims, and too bogged down by protocol, to be effective in a timely manner. He also blames a general lack of leadership on every level, including the presidency.

Just days after the storm, while Puerto Ricans still were digging their way out of the rubble, Andrés describes FEMA and Red Cross honchos as ensconced at the glitzy glass-and-steel Puerto Rico Convention Center, dining on sushi and making deals like the $156 million contract they signed with Tiffany Brown of Atlanta, which netted only 50,000 meals. Meanwhile, with the backing of his nonprofit organization, World Central Kitchen, Andrés and local chef José Enrique were leading a brigade of volunteers who produced locally sourced sandwiches, paella and stew to feed the hungry every day. And, every day, the crowds grew bigger.

“It felt like, in this small corner of San Juan, we were bringing the island slowly back to life, one ladle at a time,” Andrés writes in “We Fed an Island.”

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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 (For the AJC)

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 (For the AJC)

“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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