Why chef José Andrés is serving 150,000 meals a day on the frontlines to displaced Ukrainians: ‘Nothing is more powerful than sharing food with people’

·5-min read

Not all angels have wings.

As the world continues to monitor Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, activists from all industries are taking matters into their own hands.

To date, more than 2 million Ukrainians have been displaced in less than two weeks, according to a recent report from the United Nations. And while trying to meet people's needs is no easy task, humanitarians like chef José Andrés are giving back however they can.

The Spanish-American chef, 52, has been on the ground in Ukraine and just over the border in Poland with his nonprofit, World Central Kitchen (WCK), for nearly two weeks. Working in tandem with partner restaurants, community kitchens and numerous volunteers, Andrés and his team have provided evacuees with food and other necessities they might have otherwise not received.

While the work sounds daunting to most, for Andrés, it's a reminder of the power of humanity.

“Nothing is more powerful than sharing food with people,” he explains to Yahoo Life. “It’s become this amazing international sign of ‘Let's build longer tables, not higher walls.’ ‘Let's build longer tables, not wars.’ ‘Let's build longer tables where we are all welcome to enjoy what the goodness of the earth can give us.’”

Andrés explains of the situation at the border, including at the Lviv train station: “Every day is so intense. Every hour keeps changing. It's been only seven, eight, nine days [of conflict] and it seems this war has been going on forever, so we are very quick in adapting hour to hour.”

Rushing to people’s aid in a time of crisis is something Andrés knows about all too well.

As he tells Yahoo Life, the seed behind WCK was planted when he — like many Americans — watched in horror as thousands of people in New Orleans were displaced from their homes in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“As I watched Katrina unfold and [watched] what happened at the Superdome, I was very upset with myself that I didn't go on a plane or in a car" to get there, he explains, adding that his regret is “what gave me the idea of creating” his nonprofit.

Since launching WCK in 2010, Andrés, whose activism spans across several NGOs over the last two decades, has been pivotal in helping to recruit first responders to some of the world’s most devastating disasters — including both the 2010 and 2021 earthquakes in Haiti and in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, where WCK was the first NGO to be on the ground and ultimately served nearly 4 million meals to displaced Puerto Ricans.

“We have 11 years of experience and a lot of people now do God's work,” he says.

“We began like we always do,” he explains of the current situation in Ukraine, adding that his team arrived in Poland within hours of the Russian invasion. “We arrived with a small group and this group began doubling every single day. We began doing a few thousand meals — and the number of meals began doubling down every day.”

Though his team originally started in Poland, in just a matter of days their efforts expanded to several other countries. (As of publishing, that includes Romania, Moldova, Hungary and Slovakia.)

He also confirms with Yahoo Life that they’ve been distributing food inside Ukraine. "I think the last report I got from my team today is that we are already in the north of 150,000 meals a day," he says.

“We've been feeding within Kyiv. We've been feeding in Odesa. We've been feeding in cities that right now are under siege,” he explains, noting that none of it would have been made possible if it weren’t for the hundreds of volunteers stepping in to help.

“Small NGOs, firefighters, churches all across Poland, groups of friends, nurses, doctors, psychologists, teachers, students, everybody in Poland and in every other country too,” he says. “They left everything and they put themselves at the service of providing aid to every man and woman living in Ukraine.”

“They don’t care about recognition,” he says of the volunteers. “They are people that are doing whatever they can, 24-7. And this is what I love about humanity.”

The number of volunteers is growing every day.

“The other day I was able to deliver 10,000 kilos [over 22,000 pounds of food] to some nuns that had a bakery outside Lviv. But now, 10,000 is like nothing,” he says. “Now we have trucks that every day are going in and delivering not only a few thousand, but hundreds of thousands of food aid,” adding, “We’re trying to cover as much ground as we can.”

Andrés can't help but get emotional when speaking of the thousands of children who’ve shown up with thousands of stories.

“The first thing they tell you is ‘My dad stayed behind,’” he shares. “These are very young children that are only describing to you feelings, telling you even when they don't know you: ‘My dad stayed behind.”

“You see men, fathers, husbands leave their wives at the border. They leave them there. They're crying like maybe it's the last time [they’ll see each other],” he continues. “They are telling you, ‘My obligation right now, my responsibility, is defending my nation, defending my life. I'm protecting every woman and children that are still behind.”

In addition to providing food for displaced people across the world in times of crisis, WCK has also launched an ambitious $1 billion Climate Disaster Fund, spent over the course of 10 years, to assist communities impacted by extreme weather events caused by the climate crisis.

Still, as Andrés explains, the mission behind the organization’s work outside of providing food assistance is to remind the world that, despite the horror they may be facing, there is still good in the world.

“I hope that's what many people take with them when an organization, the many volunteers — not only Central Kitchen, but the many other organizations doing it,” he says. “There’s more good people in the world than not. And we need to make sure the ones that are no good are not the ones carrying the torch of power. We need to make sure we give that torch of love to the right people.”

—Video produced by Jacquie Cosgrove

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