Two years ago, Puerto Rico was hit by a devastating hurricane.
You know that part.
Our government failed its citizens there.
You probably know that too.
But then, World Central Kitchen showed up.
World Central Kitchen (WCK) is a nonprofit run by celebrity chef José Andrés that goes around the world providing meals to those in need during crises. It fed federal workers during the government shutdown. It recently went to Tijuana to feed Central American migrants. Mikol Hoffman, WCK’s Puerto Rico Program Manager, says the goal is just, “…to feed people. Give them a hot plate of good, comforting food that’s nutritious, delicious, and culturally appropriate. If you’ve just lost your house, the last thing you want is an MRE.”
But this organization isn’t just interested in helping people get access to food in the short term. Nine months after the hurricane, “We had run the largest feeding operation on the island. We served over 3.7 million meals… At one point we were operating eighteen kitchens.” Those kitchens needed food, and Puerto Rico imports 85% of what its citizens eat. But WCK was determined to buy local: “One of the beautiful ways that WCK operates, and one of the most impactful when you’re talking about disaster relief, is that it sources locally as much as possible. Our efforts help support the local economy, even in the face of disaster when supply chains and purchasing chains are crippled.” Buying that much produce made it clear that Puerto Rico needed a strong local food economy, so WCK stuck around. Two years later, it’s changing the face of Puerto Rican agriculture, one sustainable farm at a time.
I had the chance to visit San Juan last month for Tales on Tour, a traveling event put on by bartending advocacy organization Tales of the Cocktail. There were panels on everything from the history and present of rum to mental health to sustainability, but I was most excited about the farm tours put on by WCK.
Unfortunately, I signed up too late to get a spot on one. So, I interviewed Hoffman instead.
In the months following the hurricane, WCK decided to do something about, “this dependency on food imports. So we initially launched a pilot program supporting smallholder farmers during our feeding operation. We asked, ‘How can we best support you? What do you need right now?'” By September 2018, they had launched Plow To Plate, an agricultural recovery initiative and business incubator for sustainable farmers. In other words, “Food produced by Puerto Ricans, for Puerto Ricans.”
In 2018 alone, WCK awarded over half a million dollars in grant money. It’s not just working with small farms like the one she’d picked a cabbage at earlier that day, but working on pollination projects (Puerto Rican bees are resistant to colony collapse disorder) and giving grants to make larger farms more environmentally friendly have also become big parts of Hoffman’s job.
Hoffman wasn’t involved in WCK’s efforts immediately after the hurricane, but, “I’m humbled every day by what we’re able to do… These are people who are truly, truly committed. It would have been so easy for them to just pack their bags, get on a plane, and leave. So the fact that they’re still farming despite having lost as much as eighty, ninety, or one hundred percent of their yield… [this] is a testament to their resilience, strong will, and commitment to Puerto Rico.” One of her grantees is up to 110% yield now.
I asked Hoffman if she considers World Central Kitchen’s work to be a form of protest, and she said, “I don’t think we’re trying to make a political statement. People merit being treated with respect and dignity, no matter their education level, the language they speak, the color of their skin, their race, or their home country… Access to food is such a basic human right. At your most basic level, everyone needs to eat. At the end of the day, food unites us all.”