For decades, there have been two primary ways Americans deal with recovery from disasters.
The primary method is to deal with the American Red Cross. But a series of excellent articles from ProPublica (which I wrote about here) revealed how the Red Cross is a calcified bureaucracy that has a hard time fulfilling its primary task of getting to a disaster quickly and delivering aid.
Then there’s the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which had its own record of botching assignments. Just ask people in New Orleans what they thought of FEMA after Hurricane Katrina. Their responses won’t be polite.
Obviously, there’s room for nonprofits that efficiently deliver aid to victims of disasters. The Salvation Army has an outstanding record, but there is room for other groups.
One relatively new organization that is worth noting is World Central Kitchen created by José Andrés.
José Andrés is a celebrity chef in Washington, D.C., who heads a chain of restaurants that I can’t afford. But he’s always been interested in philanthropy. Even though World Central Kitchen isn’t a very large organization (its 2015 Form 990 shows a budget of only $600,000), it seems to be doing all sorts of things. The competitive advantage they have is that they have a network of volunteer chefs, and chefs who head restaurants know how to feed people.
Until this year World Central Kitchen has done a lot of smaller projects, mostly in the Caribbean. They’ve helped create social enterprises—a honey business in Haiti, a coffee roaster in Nicaragua. They’ve also done some small food delivery projects in the Caribbean and Mexico.
Hurricanes Harvey and Maria appear to have pushed this nonprofit into the major leagues. They first delivered a lot of meals in Houston, but as Tim Carman notes in the Washington Post, as of October 17 World Central Kitchen had prepared one million meals for Puerto Ricans.
On an October 20 report on NPR’s “All Things Considered” José Andrés said his organization had served “nearly” 1.5 million meals. An October 27 Washington Post piece said that the group had served over two million meals. Most recently, on November 27 Andrés and his team Instagrammed a photo announcing their 3 millionth meal served in Puerto Rico.
At first, the group was spending $300,000-$400,000 a day in its effort, which it hopes to recoup through future donations.
By contrast, the Red Cross as of October 17 had sent 150,000 MREs (“meals ready to eat”), 300,000 meal boxes, and 1.4 million pounds of food, which the organization says is equivalent to 1.6 million meals served (although the Red Cross doesn’t say if it served all these meals).
FEMA says it has provided 14 million meals, but subcontractors (including World Central Kitchen, which got a contract for 20,000 meals but then decided to expand on its own with private donations) provided many of these meals. (José Andrés told NPR that he wanted to get a larger FEMA contract after his first small one expired, but was prevented from doing so by federal contracting rules.)
So what makes World Central Kitchen so successful?
There’s a lot we don’t know, since, after all, most of Puerto Rico lost its electricity, and communication with the island is still somewhat spotty. When the Washington Post's Tim Carman called José Andrés for an interview, he was told that "the chef remains too swamped to walk a reporter through all the complex logistics of feeding an island with little gas, electricity, or transportation.”
But one key appears to be that World Central Kitchen’s cooks and volunteers are largely based in one spot—the Coliseo de Puerto Rico, the largest building on the island.
They gained access to the building after personal intervention by Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló. With a strong central headquarter, all the mechanics of getting hot meals to people who need them are much easier than endless flights to airports that are far away from population centers.
World Central Kitchen is also good at improvisation. At one point they learned that officials from the Department of Homeland Security were heading into rural areas with half-empty vehicles. The nonprofit made an arrangement where the Homeland Security officials could fill their vehicles with food before heading into the field.
This story is still in progress, and someone needs to write an after-action report about what World Central Kitchen did in Puerto Rico that made them so successful. But it’s clear that a relatively new nonprofit has done a good job in disaster relief efforts.
Although its efforts in Puerto Rico are largely finished (they plan to feed Puerto Rico through Christmas), Andrés told the Washington Post that he hopes World Central Kitchen will continue its efforts in disaster relief generally.
“We can’t back out of this,” José Andrés said, “I think we did a good job. We weren’t perfect, but we did a good job. I can’t just say, ‘Now, I’m closing.’ It would be a disservice to America. We’ve shown that it (disaster relief) can be done better, quicker, faster, more affordable and helping the local economies improve in the process.”