Logo credit to World Central Kitchen/WCK.org

In its 2021 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report, FAO discussed the most recent increase in global hunger figures – citing conflict, climate, and economic slowdowns exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic as major drivers behind the uptick.   

Unfortunately, we are now seeing another graphic example of the conflict driver in the form of Russia’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine at a level which simply seems inconceivable in 2022.

Aside from the immediate food requirements of 5 million displaced Ukrainians, as well as those facing a severely disrupted food system within Ukraine, the negative effect on global food security from the disruption to food production in this region will be felt for months and years to come – particularly among the most vulnerable elsewhere.

As David Beasley of the World Food Programme (WFP) recently noted, the ripple effect of the war will force the organization to slash rations to vulnerable populations throughout East Africa and the Middle East.  Thus, innocent people already on the brink of starvation will be forced to survive on even less.

To me, in a word, this invasion is unfathomable – inconceivable in its barbarity, and incomprehensible in its impact on people (and planet, but that’s a separate story). 

I’ve been following the war in minute detail since it began, trying to fully comprehend the gravity of what the Ukrainians are experiencing, and searching for glimpses of hope to celebrate with them and restore my faith in mankind. 

Fortunately, I’ve found some solace and hope in the work of World Central Kitchen, whose team has been working courageously on the front lines to provide food and comfort to Ukrainians within hours of the initial attack.

At the start of this invasion, I was moved by an emotion-filled video posted late one night by World Central Kitchen’s (WCK) founder Jose Andres in the Polish border town of Rzeszow.  In it, he described the conditions for the thousands of Ukrainian refugees suddenly fleeing to Poland, separated from family members and waiting in frigid, snowy conditions for hours.  Near tears, Andres noted that their situation was “hard to grasp” and questioned why the world allows young men and women to be put in this situation, and why we hadn’t learned enough from the horrors of past wars to prevent it. 

Pointing to a Polish flag flying next to a Ukrainian flag, he noted that “obviously the people of Poland, like all the people of the world, are Ukrainians right now” – and he called for all of us to speak up against leaders of the world who are breaking us apart and “playing with lives like it’s a monopoly game.”

Andres’ words, like the work of World Central Kitchen, never fail to inspire. 

For two months, the WCK team has been cutting through the madness unleashed by this invasion, demonstrating extraordinary courage and commitment to people – and doing it all through food.

WCK reports on its website that it has already served more than 12 million meals in concert with 420 restaurant partners in eight countries, and their team will be involved in serving and distributing food for as long as is needed.

Through all of the carnage and the atrocities, the WCK team provides hope not only to those they are serving, but to the rest of the world, through caring, will, and humanity.

Impact through mission and model

Recently, I was very fortunate to speak with two key individuals at WCK, Robert Egger, Board member and founder of DC Central Kitchen (DCCK), and Jason Collis, Vice President of Relief, who is currently operating in Poland and Ukraine.

Robert and I discussed some of the high-level, systemic issues to be considered in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the implications for WCK of working in a war zone.  He provided important insights into the WCK model, which is performing resilience work by partnering with local farmers and food providers, chefs, and restaurants to fill the immediate food while at the same time strengthening the local economy.

We also discussed Robert’s original thinking leading to DCCK’s mission statement, which is “to use food as a tool to strengthen bodies, empower minds, and build communities.”  And we explored the key themes behind that mission, such as empathy, respect, liberation and redemption.

Those themes, and DCCK’s mission and model, are intertwined with the mission and work of WCK.

As always, Robert’s passion for serving others came through and provided a welcome uplift for me.

Adapting on the front lines

I also spoke with Jason Collis, who has been working in and around Poland and Ukraine for weeks, to gain some insight into the work of the WCK team on the front lines as well as their various successes and challenges.

Jason noted that WCK’s first steps involved establishing sites at the border crossings, which they accomplished by sending team members to different countries, building relationships, activating volunteers, and creating partnerships with restaurants through the region – a process that is a hallmark of their work.  Thereafter, they moved inside Ukraine, successfully establishing partnerships with numerous restaurants that are cooking to provide needed food in both occupied and unoccupied areas, while also connecting with other food organizations with access to needed infrastructure. 

The WCK team quickly recognized that with food supplies cut off in some regions, bulk distribution would be needed, so they established warehouses in different areas within Ukraine and began purchasing as much food locally as possible (and from sources in other countries). 

They also created a commercial kitchen and established warehousing operations through partnerships in Warsaw, allowing them to move truckloads of food into several cities and towns and aid in reconstructing the food system.  Through all of these efforts, Jason noted that they “stabilize the food system and the economy.”

I asked about challenges in their work related to transporting and cooking food on the border of, and in, a war zone.  Jason noted that logistics were a “real challenge in the beginning” regarding paperwork and documentation issues.  He added that they are not logistical experts, but they adapted quickly, learned what was needed, and improvised to move food swiftly.  Collaboration from various EU nations helped resolve paperwork and product challenges. 

Notably, the WCK team connected with a key supplier of McDonald’s who had excess food on hand due to the closure of the hamburger chain’s restaurants in Ukraine.  As Jason described, WCK utilized those donations in “making their famous ham and cheese sandwiches on Big Mac buns.”  Considering the war zone circumstances, this ranks as one of the highest-value diversion examples of excess food that I’ve ever uncovered. 

This creative example is indicative of WCK’s agility.  Jason noted that WCK is not bound by contracts to any organizations, so they are able to use that flexibility to their advantage and move fast.  That agility led them to quickly address food waste early on (something they are totally against) by putting basic measurement processes in place at border crossings regarding the amount of food that was going across and the number of people being served.

Addressing the human side

We discussed the human side of the work that WCK is doing, and I asked Jason to share some of his personal feelings.  He pointed to the reactions from the refugees, saying it was “something that I’ve never really seen before.”  He spoke of being touched by the emptiness in the eyes of the people as they entered a new country with so much uncertainly, noting that the separation of the families was heartbreaking.

He also described conditions in the earliest days of migration, with exhausted refugees waiting at the border in extremely cold temperatures for hours “with their whole lives in their hands.”  Seeing that many had to hold on to children and suitcases constantly, the WCK team focused on giving them warmth and nutrition in the form of chunky soups that they could grab and sip. 

Jason also noticed that some of the people initially showed apprehension about accepting the food, perhaps due to pride or not knowing its origin.  As a result, the team realized the importance of keeping the tents very clean, overtly demonstrating food safety, and showing that this was well thought-out food.  The WCK team was committed to providing a sense of comfort to the Ukrainians. 

He recalled with a smile the early days of the operation, where individuals from multiple communities and organizations were coming out to contribute and food was plentiful.  This led him to reflect, “Now, how do you organize that, and streamline it?  So seeing it where it is today, it’s a beautiful thing.”  He added, “That’s one thing we said, we need to give that sense of comfort to them.”

It is indeed a beautiful thing, and the word that immediately jumps to mind for me is humanity.

I asked Jason about barriers beyond security, and whether there were parallels here to solving other food system challenges such as hunger and excessive waste, much of which come down in my mind to caring and will.  He completely agreed, noting “It’s the caring and will, and not being in a process or a system that is going to stop you, or give you boundaries not to do it.” 

I also asked whether he had experienced any major surprises in the work to date, and he pointed to their move into bulk food distribution – which is a stretch from their normal model of producing hot meals from field kitchens or restaurants.  Their adaptation to conditions generated by the war, coupled with recent experience in quickly moving food items out of their Relief Operations Center (ROC) to meet disasters, has been highly beneficial.  As Jason noted, he “never thought at the time they would be creating their ROC system to feed an entire country.”

That raises the question of whether the scaling of WCK’s model to handle the wartime displacement of millions will become a permanent fixture of their work, and/or will be adapted to handle potentially millions of climate refugees.  Robert pointed to the latter as the “epic reality” to be dealt with in the face of a global climate shift and noted that it is a current point of discussion.  Jason added that in any case their work in Ukraine will help them prepare for whatever climate disaster is necessary. 

And preparedness is key, for in the words of Jose Andres, “When you talk about food and water, people don’t want a solution one week from now, or one month from now. The solution has to be now.”

Connecting through the power of food

We also discussed the power of food to bring people together in times of crisis, which is the core of WCK’s work.  Jason pointed to the moments of comfort they are providing to the Ukrainians, “where they can have some chicken soup that reminded them of grandma, or that gumbo that reminded them of Uncle Joe in a time of crisis.”  He added, “seeing how that affected the recipient was amazing.”

He also cited the power of unity among all of the volunteers who are driven to do something to help, noting “Our kitchens, and even the restaurant partners, when you see that energy, and that vibe, and that collaboration, and that area for counsel to get relief and comfort…it’s just amazing.”

He recalled the first time he worked with WCK in California providing relief to those impacted by wildfires, noting that he saw people who didn’t like each other in the business world coming together to chop vegetables to help others.  “This was their way of rehabilitation for what they had just gone through,” he noted, and in Ukraine, “it’s people who are against the war, and for humanity, who don’t want to believe in violence and fighting, looking to find how they can help.” 

He added that WCK has people flying in from all over the world to cook in their kitchens, showing the attraction and power of doing something through food to help others in need.

All of this goes directly to one of Robert Egger’s powerful founding principles behind his work at DC Central Kitchen, the idea that “Charity is about the redemption of the giver, not the liberation of the receiver.”  This principle has been embraced by Jose Andres and WCK, and I believe it is at the heart of the outpouring of support for the displaced Ukrainian people – we are all looking for a way to feel better about ourselves and restore our faith in humanity.

In closing, I asked Jason whether he had any specific points of inspiration from the work on the front lines to date.  He immediately pointed to the resilience of the Ukrainian people, noting that it is “overwhelming.”  He added, “They are not giving up, and by seeing them not giving up, it’s giving me the energy not to give up, and I’m not even feeling 1/16th of what they are going through.”

Reflections and looking forward

As I write this piece, nearly two months into the war, I look up to see the news flash of the Russian missile strike on the kitchen of a WCK partner kitchen – wounding four members of the kitchen staff and killing another individual.

Added to a lengthy list of atrocities, it’s clear that the barbarity of the Russian leadership knows no bounds.  As the WFP’s David Beasley noted, “Russia’s invasion has reminded us that the root cause of hunger around the world is human folly and reckless disregard for human life.” 

Later, I see a report on the looming impact of the war on global food security, which will undoubtedly accelerate the pace of global hunger figures in the wrong direction.

And in the aftermath of the missile strike on the kitchen facility, I see a video clip in a tweet from WCK CEO Nate Mook showing the movement of food products and non-damaged equipment to a new kitchen site in Kharkiv.  Mook notes that “the work doesn’t stop!” and the entire team wants to continue cooking.  Jose Andres adds that “there are many ways to fight, we do it with food! 

There is no doubt, the courage and the resilience of this team and their partners is truly inspiring.

Beyond the incalculable human suffering, I have also been reflecting on the environmental toll of this war – and thinking about how much global good could be accomplished if all of the energy being waged on destruction could be redirected into fixing social and environmental problems. 

As with other crises, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, this one further distracts the nations of the world from engaging in urgent collaborative actions to address the climate crisis and all of the seminal challenges behind the Sustainable Development Goals – such as poverty, food security, water security, deforestation, and biodiversity loss – which threaten global security and the future viability of the planet.

Now well into the Decade of Action, the world simply can’t afford such distractions any longer.

We can take a lot from the work of WCK – the power of preparedness, creativity, partnerships, connectivity, agility, adaptability, and the power of local.

On the human level, we can see the power of caring, will, courage, and resilience.

And we can also see the power of food, and the ability to bring comfort, hope, unity, inspiration, and redemption to people through food in the time of such a devastating crisis.   

I often speak about the value of food and all of the resources that go into producing it, but I never thought I would be exploring it in the context of a major war in Europe in 2022. 

I am awestruck by the work of the World Central Kitchen team.

I have always been inspired by its story and mission, and very grateful to see its work following disasters in places like Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, Haiti and elsewhere.

But WCK’s work in Ukraine goes to a new level, combining courage and will with mission and an unshakeable commitment to caring for people through food.

It is so humane.  It fits with our expectations of how global citizens should act, and in the case of this war, it counters the reality of the brutality we are seeing on a daily basis. 

It’s restorative.  It’s about humanity.

And I should note that In the midst of this madness, engaging with the WCK team for this piece has been restorative for me. 

Special thanks to Robert, Jason, Jose Andres, Nate Mook, and the entire WCK team that is performing this incredible work, not only on the borders of a war zone, but in it.  And thanks to all of the participating restaurant partners, food providers, logistical providers, and donors as well. 

WCK’s work is so much more than providing hot food and temporary solace to displaced individuals, it’s about providing hope and restoring faith in humanity. 

And at this unfathomable point in history, we all really need that.