When there’s a hurricane, an earthquake, wildfires, or any other disaster, you can count on World Central Kitchen (WCK) to be there, bringing comfort to victims through food and feeding first responders. The pandemic was a different kind of crisis than leadership at the nonprofit had dealt with in the past. With millions of people out of work, 54 million people expected to face food insecurity and a deadly disease that we knew little about, where would they even start?
“There’s an abundance of produce because restaurants can’t operate. Restaurant workers need to retain jobs. And then you have families that are in need of food because of the current crisis,” said WCK CEO Nate Mook. “So we thought, what if we could connect those things? What if we could put our restaurants back to work in service of the people?”
The group’s leadership started discussing the plan in early March and launched a pilot program in Washington, D.C., just a week later. “We reached out to restaurants from fast casual to Michelin-starred restaurants,” said Mook. “Every restaurant that we met with was eager to jump on board.”
By April, the Restaurants for the People initiative formally launched across the country. The initiative helped support restaurants, provided strict safety protocols to prevent the spread of the virus, and coordinated logistics to get food from restaurants to people in need. The initiative has donated $120 million to restaurants to prepare more than 11 million meals as of mid-October. At the height of the initiative in May and June, WCK worked with 2,500 restaurants in 400 different cities.
“We weren’t intending to replace their business, but we could be a bridge during the time restaurants weren’t able to have customers, to just keep them above water,” said Mook.
It was mid-March when the Wisconsin governor ordered bars and restaurants closed. That’s when Caitlin Cullen, chef and owner of Tandem in Milwaukee, decided to give away the food that was left. “I figured we were going to go out of business. Our whole thought was, let's cook all this food in the basement and make sure people get to eat before we have to shutter.” One of Cullen’s friends, a local DJ, reached out to World Central Kitchen, asking for their help. Within 24 hours, Cullen says, she was on the phone with WCK, and within a week, Tandem received funding through the Restaurants for the People initiative to feed the community.
“They came in at the right time, just when we were running out of money,” said Cullen, who credits the organization with helping the Milwaukee food scene survive. The restaurant received $430,000 in funding to provide meals to 30,000 people from April to July. Not only was Cullen able to keep her six-person team, but she also subcontracted with 40 other Milwaukee restaurants to help with meal prep, keeping them afloat as well.
When asked why it was important to Cullen to share resources with other restaurants, she quoted lyrics from the Jay-Z and Beyonce song “The Boss”: “Over here we measure success by how many people successful next to you / Here, we say you broke if everybody else is broke except for you.”
The concept of uplifting the community propelled famed Spanish chef José Andrés to found World Central Kitchen in 2010 when he traveled to Haiti to help improve cooking conditions after the devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake. His vision, as Eater’s Monica Burton articulates, was a “chefs without borders” program that empowered a network of chefs to make a positive change in four key areas: education, health, jobs, and social enterprise.
But it wasn’t until after Hurricane Maria struck in 2017 that WCK revolutionized its crisis response. Andrés and Mook, who both traveled to Puerto Rico to aid relief efforts, ended up staying for months and developed a new way to tackle crises, one that significantly increased WCK’s impact.
“In Puerto Rico, we built this model that disrupted—in a good way—how we respond to emergencies when it comes to food, and we were able to replicate this model everywhere else,” said Mook.
“We get on the ground, and we connect with the chefs; we look at what resources are already there, activating a kitchen where we can start cooking immediately. We don't have to bring in a bunch of equipment from the outside. Instead, we find local farmers, local producers, and local distributors. We tap into those things that are already there. We move quickly because when people are hungry, they're hungry now—not next week.”
“In typical emergency responses, a bunch of resources are mobilized from the outside; It's very inefficient to do it that way, and you're not supporting and necessarily uplifting the community that’s already there,” he explained.
Moving fast, adapting to changing circumstances, and building and scaling teams are experiences that Mook, who swapped his tech career for filmmaking (he first met Andrés while filming a documentary about Haiti), brought with him when he joined WCK as CEO after Hurricane Maria.
“They are master logisticians,” said Eric Wang, co-owner of acclaimed Burmese restaurant Thamee in Washington, D.C. “They put a lot of work into making sure that it’s as straightforward for their restaurant partners as possible.”
Thamee partnered with WCK from May 2020 through the end of July, providing 300 to 700 meals a week to healthcare workers at the D.C. Central Detention Facility. Forced to let go of all their employees in March when they closed their doors to the public, the restaurant could bring back four to five former employees each week thanks to the $10 per meal payment they received from WCK.
“They are very hands-on. They care about every meal that goes out, and when they see a need, they try to meet that need,” said Wang, who recalled one incident where the restaurant’s delivery driver failed to show up, and WCK reimbursed the restaurant for an Uber to transport the food. “It seems small, but they knew we weren’t working for any margins.”
“It’s really about strategic thinking,” said Evelina Ochoa, who started volunteering with WCK in 2017, after the Thomas fire ravaged parts of Ventura County, California, where she lives. “It’s figuring out what people need, how we get it to them, following our gut, and just making decisions.”
Over the past two years, she helped the organization with several missions, distributing food to migrants at the Mexican border seeking asylum and feeding California fire and earthquake victims. When the pandemic hit, Ochoa, 37, came on as a contractor to run a project under the Restaurants for the People initiative to feed the oft-forgotten essential workers: the people who grow and harvest our food. The project was close to her heart because her parents are farmworkers. Partnering with the United Farm Workers union, Ochoa vetted and onboarded local restaurants, set up distribution sites for farmworkers, and coordinated volunteers to serve food.
“There's something about people, specifically women, showing up to pick up the food and saying, ‘You know, this is at least one meal a week that I don't have to rush to get home to cook,’” said Ochoa. “If someone asks for an extra plate of food, we give it to them. It’s a way of showing them that we see them, we hear them, and that we appreciate the work they're doing, that we acknowledge that they are sometimes forgotten in the media.”
Anyone and everyone who needs a meal is welcome to get food from WCK distribution sites, no questions asked. “We don't make people justify anything. It's just a human right to have something to eat,” said Mook.
At one point, WCK had 300 people working on the Restaurants for the People Initiative, though now that number is closer to 50, in addition to the countless volunteers who help distribute food. WCK also continues to deploy in disaster zones—they were in Lake Charles, Louisiana, after Hurricane Laura—and they also launched a new initiative called Chefs For The Polls, bringing food to people waiting for hours to vote. WCK is entirely funded by private donations and depends on volunteers, and Mook says they’ll continue doing this work until the money runs out.
“What they do is just incredible,” said Wang. “The fact that they can mobilize that many restaurants so quickly—they certainly work quicker than our government.”
“I’m so grateful World Central Kitchen exists,” Cullen said. “I remember seeing José speak, and he said, ‘In times of crisis, everyone's in charge of feeding people, which means no one’s in charge of feeding people.’ They’re doing work that people would forget to do otherwise. It means a lot to me, and it means a lot to Milwaukee.”
Main Photo: Courtesy of World Central Kitchen; Illustration: TripSavvy / Julie Bang